Surviving Oral Cancer: a candid account by a Merivale patient

Part I - Diagnosis
When it comes to bad habits, like smoking and drinking alcohol, the thing that people do is they lie; they lie to their doctor, they lie to their dentist…I never have. Or you tend to ignore things and you tend not to tell anybody, although of course you know it’s a risk. I know, because I was one of the people who took that risk and suffered as a result of it. I can’t prove it was smoking that caused my mouth cancer but at the same time, it’s pretty likely, based on where it was. I was aware of a little bump on the inside of my mouth. I’d felt it with my tongue. It was quite small but I thought the next time I went to see Matthew I’d mention it for him to have a look. I’d decided it was a blocked salivary gland duct so I was not particularly concerned.

When I went to see Matthew for my routine check I mentioned it and once he’d had a good look he said, and I’ll never forget his words, “I’d be failing in my duty if I didn't ask you to go to Guy’s (Hospital) as soon as possible to have a biopsy.” So I went up two days later. I was there for about half an hour and they took a biopsy of the bump.

A few days later I received a letter asking me to go back. I was taken straight down to see Professor McGurk (Consultant Oral and Maxillofacial and Head and Neck Surgeon, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Foundations Trust) and he told me that it was cancer. He explained there were three types of cancer: mild, moderate and aggressive. Mine was moderate, and the bump, or carcinoma, would need to be cut out.

Part II - Treatment
First I had to undergo a barrage of tests, scans and so on in preparation for the surgery, but these took place quickly and a couple of weeks later Professor McGurk and his team cut out the carcinoma and about a centimetre margin around it. They also did a biopsy of the proximal (nearby) lymph nodes. Three of them came back positive for cancer, which then meant I had to have a ‘neck section’ during which they removed all the lymph nodes - 56 in total. Thankfully all the others were negative.

During the neck section they had to remove quite a lot of tissue and they rebuilt the inside of my mouth with grafts from my leg. The surgery didn’t go that well. I stopped breathing and I was unconscious for three days. But I’m stubborn! I wasn’t going to let this thing beat me. And here I am. Still recovering but stronger every day. Because so much tissue was taken out of my mouth my speech has altered slightly, but I’m still here to tell the tale.

The response from the NHS was incredible. I just can’t speak highly enough of the whole team at Guy’s who looked after me - the Professor, the dentists, the nurses, the cleaners on the ward. Everyone was brilliant throughout. Everything moved as quickly as it needed to but it was all explained to me along the way so I was always aware of what was happening.

Part III - Recovery and rehabilitation
The support that Matthew and the rest of the team at Merivale provided during my treatment and recovery was a tremendous help. After all the surgery I was told not to clean my teeth for seven weeks in order to give the surgical site time to heal.

Thanks to Lorraine (Heywood) I managed to get on top of my oral hygiene again. It wasn’t easy but I was determined to do it. My mouth was, and still is, quite sore and uncomfortable. But Lorraine used local anaesthetic and over the course of several sessions we managed to get things under control again. There was an incident where I had an infection in the surgery site and Matthew kept calling and chasing the hospital to get me seen as soon as possible and it worked.

Part IV - The future
It’s been more than a year since I started on this journey. It’s still sore but I’m definitely on the path to recovery now. I’ve had regular check-ups since the surgery and the last time I went they said I was in remission. It’s what you hope to hear really.

The importance of dentistry, as my story hopefully shows, is absolutely vital. Matthew’s observation, and the urgency with which he asked me to get the lump investigated cannot be underestimated.

Without a doubt it saved my life. Professor McGurk said that had Matthew not caught it when he did, my chances of recovery would have been drastically reduced. So thanks for that.