Personal cancer story
Cancer happened really fast for me.
In early 2011, I was 34 years old and 33 weeks pregnant when I found an irritating ulcer on my tongue. I was working full time, in the final stages of pregnancy and looking after my three-year-old son, so I didn't have much time to worry about it. Over a period of five weeks, despite the application of medicated creams, the ulcer became more uncomfortable.
When I went to the doctor for the second time, she was a little worried that the ulcer hadn't responded to the prescribed treatment. She called in the head doctor at the surgery to get a second opinion and they both agreed that I should see a specialist and would make the appointment for me. Despite the doctors' warning that it could be cancer, having been reasonably healthy all my life, I still wasn't worried.
I saw the specialist the following day and was told on the spot, at 38 weeks pregnant, that I had a squamous cell carcinoma, tongue cancer [a type of head and neck cancer]. I couldn't believe it. I was busy, healthy and had no family history of cancer. Not once had I thought that the discomfort I felt was associated with something more serious than an ulcer. I was sent off for a biopsy straight away and the diagnosis was confirmed again the next day.
The day after they told me, I was induced to have my baby and she was born a day and a half after that. When she was four days old, she was taken away from me to the special care nursery while I underwent treatment. It was so hard to say goodbye to her, I was worried about getting postnatal depression and not wanting her back after my surgery. I didn't get to see her at all for the five days she was in the nursery and that was incredibly traumatic. The whole thing happened in just over a week: cancer diagnosis, major head and neck surgery and a new baby in between!
When I came out of surgery, I had a feeding tube and couldn't talk. It was incredibly full-on. After seven days the feeding tube was removed and I had to learn to eat, drink and talk all over again with my newly constructed tongue. I had speech therapy for about five months. I couldn't talk at all for the first week and I could barely move my neck, head and shoulders from the surgery. Through all this, I still expressed milk for my baby which was taken down to the special care nursery and I then resumed breastfeeding her when she was returned to me. I couldn't move my head enough to see her feeding and help her latch on, but thankfully she was a natural at it. The hospital staff were not allowed to help me with my baby as she was not a ‘patient’, only I was.
I needed 24-hour support from my family to help me recover and look after my newborn baby at the same time.
I am so lucky to have had incredible family support. I have a wonderful husband and I am really close with my parents, brother and sister, and they all played a huge role in my recovery. They were all at the hospital the morning of my surgery and waited 10 hours for me to come out of the theatre. My mum didn't leave my side and cared for me day and night. While I was in hospital, my father-in-law flew up from Adelaide and my mother-in law came up from the Gold Coast to help my husband with my three-year-old son. We couldn't have done it without them all.
Cancer isn't something that ever really leaves you ... but right now I’m healthy and happy and enjoying every day."
My surgeon was really happy with how the tongue reconstruction and neck dissection surgery went. The lymph nodes they had removed as part of the neck dissection all came back clear after testing and the surgeon was happy with the margins she took in my tongue. Because of this, I didn't need chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
I was on monthly follow-up appointments at the hospital for the first year and a half and now I have appointments just every three months. I was very lucky that the surgery was done so well. The surgeon saved my life.
The whole experience happened so quickly. I don't think I really processed everything until I was back at home with a newborn baby on the road to recovery. When my in-laws had returned home and my husband back to work, that's when I started reaching out to support groups, researched online and read a couple of books.
I connected with a group in America for pregnant women with cancer and Australia's Mummy's Wish. I also read personal stories and blogs online. These stories helped me to feel like I wasn't alone and showed me that everyone's experience is unique. This is one of the reasons I wanted to share my story with Cancer Council Australia.
My story is unique and I learnt that everyone's will be different. I learnt to never take your health for granted and to get anything unusual checked out. Cancer can happen to anyone and it's important to make your health a priority.
I particularly want to address other mothers: Don't put the health of your kids and husband, your job or anything else above your own wellbeing. Your family and friends need you around and you need to be the best you can be for them.
It's been a long road to recovery, but I've been lucky to have come out the other side. My surgeon said to me that I'll probably be going back to see her for the rest of my life. Cancer isn't something that ever really leaves you but something I'll always be aware of. It's always in the back of my mind, but right now I'm healthy and happy and enjoying every day.
Read more stories about people's personal experiences with cancer