Tuesday 23rd July 2019

Musings On 2 Years Of Living As A Head & Neck Cancer Patient. 56/2019.

Musings On 2 Years Of Living As A Head & Neck Cancer Patient. 56/2019.

I have written frequently over the last two years about my diagnosis with a rare head and neck cancer. You can find the many posts, and ones where I have shared on other sites here. I keep the posts at the top of my blog’s home page to help any other head and neck cancer patients and their families.

Musing One.

What has happened this month?

I am a memory-keeper and in some instances that can be good, others memories remind me of not-so-good times. As May 2019 drew closer, so did the second anniversary of my head and neck cancer diagnosis. I sensed that I needed to mark it in some ways, and that was through writing starting even before May. I also used my creative side and constructed a big mandala documenting every day since diagnosis.

I did these to help me through and to show, when I shared, what the experience was like for me.

Thanks to this blog, and a facebook page along with instagram I got some caring comments and support on-line which I have always found helpful.

What I have also found is that I am the only person who really remembers the lead-up to that morning on Wednesday 17 May ’17 and then how it affected me afterwards.

I guess, “my” cancer is like any life experience that we have as an individual. It’s mine. Yes, I share. (some might think over-share: sorry!) And my dear husband “knows” the stories as he has experienced them alongside me. However, he is  was my carer and now that I am as independent as I can be, I am “the loved wife” in our long marriage. That’s great.

On my 69th Birthday 2018

Musing Two.

How has the lead-up to the anniversary been?

I thought it was good. It was like box-ticking and I felt good doing that.

Remembering what I experienced with the tests before the diagnosis. Ok. I remembered but did not over-think it.

The weather and the dates changing on the calendar also reminded me but again, I was feeling pretty good.

I had two hurdles, if you will, and they were the visit to my Prosthodontist on May 13 and to my Head and Neck surgeon on May 21. These were of concern in a way because at my last visits to each (three months earlier) there was talk of a possible fifth surgery to ‘fill out the top of my mouth.

I can tell you now, dear reader, the prospect of the surgery did not concern me nearly as much as the recovery from it…the LONG time with no top teeth and then more time with getting the mouth healed enough for a prosthesis. I have just had 8 delightful months being able to EAT again and that would be tough. Of course, the smile would change…ok.

December ’18

Musing Three.

What actually eventuated.

Visit to the Prosthodontist.

Dr Deshpande asked me about pain levels. Pain comes and goes in my mouth where it has all been reconstructed and I told him a few weeks earlier it was significant. However, as it settled I did not need to call him. I was much more confident about those calls than I ever was in 2018. He examined the upper prosthesis, the gums, and where the abutments are in the gums. Yes, there was some tiny more skin growth but nothing to be concerned about at this stage.He did a small clean around the abutments and told me what I had been doing every day was going very well and the gums were in good health. Phew. Using the waterpik twice a day was a key element. He showed me around the inside of my mouth and his nurse videoed it as best she could as he explained it all. He is so patient and very thorough and professional. After taking lots of close-ups inside my mouth he told me his view that my surgeon would be unlikely to want to do more re-construction because the skin area of concern back in January/February had not changed. Back for my check up 16 July.

Fistbump! Photo of “us” knowing each other in this professional setting for 2 years.

 

Visit to the Head and Neck Surgical Team.

This was on Tuesday 21 May. Both he and his nurse were delighted to see me and it wasn’t just because I brought cupcakes I had made. They can see a different me emerge I guess, and someone who has taken on an Ambassador role to work towards helping head and neck cancer awareness and both Professor Clark and Sr Froggatt are foundation members of Beyond Five. Again my mouth was examined and as I recalled the words of my last visit “I am a cancer doctor, so I AM looking for cancer” and it all seemed fine I was OK. He decided any choice about more surgery would be determined by what happens inside the mouth. “Could get worse, better or stay the same”. And now would not be in my best interests to do this. Phew. However, I also learned that the interval till my next visit is 4 months, not 6. And that I will require some CT scans as baseline ones. This was a wee bit threatening to my equilibrium but as I do, I went along following instructions. Before I left, I asked some questions about my mouth: here are the answers.

  1. the tightness will remain up top as so much more has been added for the re-construction than a normal mouth would have
  2. sniffing is part and parcel of having the nasal area invaded quite a few times…sniff and manage!
  3. dry top lip probably from not being able to seal off my mouth
  4. need for a new upper prosthesis? “If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix”

Thanks Cate for all your reassurance and hugs too!

Then there was this. “A Photo with Denyse with her Badge on.”

Hugs and farewells and I will be back to Chris O’Brien Lifehouse to have a check up on September 24.

Musing Four.

When having cancer is a reality that I am reminded of every time I visit Sydney for cancer treatments.

Westmead.

Where I see the prosthodontist. I lived in western Sydney and had never been to the Dental part of the hospital until May 24 2017. Since then I have been 37 times. Each time could be lengthy and required patience from me in spades. However, there were some visits that were emotionally bumpy and Dr D and O handled my state of health brilliantly. When I was there recently, the lady of the front desk said “Denyse, we are like family”.

That was lovely. I would not have met so many kind people there without a rare mouth cancer, and where the expertise was right there. Someone working alongside my surgeon in each surgery. Wow. Talk about fortunate.

Camperdown.

Specifically Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, slap back in the midst of Sydney’s major health precinct on Missenden Road. Sydney University on one side, Royal Prince Alfred on the other, and new buildings mixed with the historical on either side.

This is where I first met my professional team one day after being told I had cancer.

I had my husband with me of course. He was (and is) the patient man by my side. So, I recall, being there for the first time, seeing this amazing purpose-built cancer centre which had come from the vision of Dr Chris O’Brien who was on our telly as part of the reality series R.P.A. Such a professional and friendly head and neck surgeon with heart. I sensed I was in the right place WITH the right people straight away. Finding out later that my surgeon had trained under Chris O’Brien made me feel even better about what was ahead. And so Lifehouse was where I had the first BIG surgery and stayed for 10 days in July 2017, then further day surgeries in November 2017, February 2018 and May 2018. Follow ups too mean I have been there 12 times.

Musing Five.

IF I did not have cancer here’s what I may have missed in my life….

  1. the opportunity to take on new information and run with it. I learned I can deal with more than I ever imagined.
  2. getting to know people from the health fields who amaze me with their professionalism, the wealth of knowledge, their compassion, their skills and their genuine humanity
  3. being able to recover as quickly as I did from the decline in my emotional health which was ‘strangling my enjoyment of life’ from 2014 to mid 2017
  4. meeting people from all walks of life: in real life and on-line, a facebook group in New Zealand is an amazing space,  who have also been diagnosed with head and neck cancers: Yet, I still have not met anyone that has had mine exactly: Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Upper Gums & under Top Lip: no risk factors of smoking or alcohol: rare of rare ME.
  5. the many ways in which I could grow and change to become ‘the Denyse’ I wanted and needed to be again: strong, positive, confident
  6. sharing my story of this cancer and being able to offer help when asked to others with head and neck cancers
  7. becoming someone with a role to play in terms of education and awareness of head and neck cancers working with Beyond Five. The charity to support patients, carers and family members with information, videos, print-outs and connections to local support groups as those affected with head and neck cancer need support “beyond five” years of the traditional
  8. to take more time to actually enjoy what is rather than be longing for what’s next. I add, this is me as a definite “w-i-p” because it requires constant reminding from me to me
  9. a greater appreciation for those who have been part of my life and have added their emotional and other support to me over the internet, phonecalls and visits, along with cards and gifts. I have been spoiled!
  10. to take what I have experienced and give back. I will return to Chris O’Brien Lifehouse on Monday 3 June 2019 to be in the audience to listen to my professional head and neck cancer team talk of what working with and learning from Chris O’Brien was like. This week marks 10 years since his early death due to cancer.
  11. to look at the posters and information about how Chris O’Brien Lifehouse came into being and thank the governments of the day for helping it happen. Chris was well enough to know it would be constructed but his wife Gail took over his role after his sad demise.
  12. becoming part of the community at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse even though I am not there much physically, I donate materials to the art program, I wrote a blog post for their website and I have been in a couple of other site’s telling my story including Beyond Five.

 

Musing Six.

Blogging & helping others works for me to manage my emotions relating to cancer.

I have a great group of on-line supporters who have helped carry me through this story or journey as I call it. I prefer not to use war-words like warrior and ‘beating cancer’ as I also know not everyone does. I have already known of two young women die in the past two months from cancer. Not head and neck but cancer. So it does ache to even talk about that. I know though that we have many people helping with fund-raising to support cancer research and I won’t name any others than these as they are close to my cancer-heart.

The Big Hug Box. I started making some bookmarks for Lisa to include in the Big Hug box back in 2018 and loved contributing to her charity started because as a young mum just diagnosed herself with a rare cancer, she knew patients like her could use a BIG hug. For more about Lisa’s work go here.

Beyond Five. For Head and Neck cancer patients, family and friends. This is a website and offers lots to help. It continues to grow and change but with no government funding, some donations by companies in related fields and one part-time business manager, a fund-raiser began for them in 2018 called Soup for the Soul. Soup is often a food that patients with head and neck cancer can manage and it is comforting. Soup for the Soul is already live and I have a Virtual Soup for the Soul page here. More about that as we get closer to World Head and Neck Cancer Day on 27 July.

Writing my story has helped me manage emotions, experiences and responses well. I am indeed going well two years AFTER my cancer diagnosis. Thank you for being here to read about it.

Denyse.

 

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New Normal For Me With Head & Neck Cancer. 43/2019.

New Normal For Me With Head & Neck Cancer. 43/2019.

It’s occurred to me that I’ve been writing posts about how it was for me BEFORE a cancer diagnosis hereand there are the series of posts about my surgeries and progress found here….but I have not done any updates of NOW.

Now as they say in cancer circles, is the new normalwhich is described here:

Finding a ‘new normal’

Many survivors* say that cancer changes them. After treatment, they may feel different, even though they look the same. With time, survivors often find a new way of living. Many call this a “˜new normal’. It may take months or years to find a “˜new normal’.

Misconceptions about treatment  ending

  • I should be celebrating.
  • I should feel well.
  • I should be the person I was before cancer.
  • I should not need support.
  • I should feel grateful.

Read more at https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/15289/b1000/living-well-after-cancer-45/living-well-after-cancer-back-to-normal/#xc5f7pBq7VeQ7Oeq.99

Fellow Head and Neck Cancer Survivor, Julie McCrossin AM, the inaugural Beyond Five Ambassador hosts a series of podcasts here called About Cancer.

About the word: survivor. My personal choice is this one. However, it is not always looked upon well by some. I have no word to replace it for me. I personally do not like warrior nor does thriver work for me as it does for some. It’s just me. I tend to use patient maybe because I am still getting cancer checks. To each their own, right?

Now, back to MY version of New Normal.

I have really been considering this in 2019 as it ‘felt like’ and ‘looked like’ I was back to Denyse. But which version of Denyse? I am ageing too and I wonder if some of my thoughts are also linked to being in my 70th year.

When I was in pre-cancer times, I was so ‘caught up’ with managing my stress and emotional load at having moved from Sydney and all that entailed in getting used to a new normal for that situation. Suddenly, new normal meant:

  • no longer living in a house we were paying off
  • no more employment for me
  • no more regular contact and care for our grandkids
  • being a more stressed-out person than I liked
  • trying hard (so hard) to be better able to manage the life I had then: 2015-mid 2017

Then cancer entered my life.

Very suddenly I took on a new way of looking at life, and learning what was ahead.

OK. I was stressed but in some ways I knew what was coming and even though there were unknowns, I do know NOW, I have made it through

  • diagnosis,
  • 4 surgeries,
  • recovery times,
  • many prosthodontist visits and treatments,
  • adjusting to life with less ‘in my mouth’ to help me eat,
  • then getting more in my mouth to help me eat…
  • and bingo, the smile is back so…
  • back to normal, right?

OH no, so not true. For me at all.

Partly it was my belief I could be back to eating what I used to eat.

I even bought these foods after not buying anything crunchy for well over a year and they disappointed me greatly. Perhaps, for the chips, a good thing.

However, some of this is true but more is not.

I can only crunch and chew for so long.

It is almost a year since the last surgery inside my mouth to add more skin to the inside of my upper lip and around the top ‘jaw’ abutments. I got my upper prosthesis screwed in on 21 August 2018 and it has been removed only once for adjustment by the prosthodontist. I do upkeep: two routines daily, involving 4 steps using this:

In being totally honest with myself, I can say I need to remember more than anyone that I have changed because of cancer in my mouth.

Head and Neck cancer never really leaves us. This is the reason for Beyond Five where I am now an Ambassador. This site helps patients, carers, families and friends with ‘the years after cancer’s 5 year checks are up’.

Announcement of My Ambassador Role.

It’s stays as it affects our inside and outside areas of the neck, head and inside the mouth, cheeks, sinuses and down into the throat and more. In my case, it is all in the mouth. I was told pre-big surgery, no-one would know you have had cancer or surgery once this is all done, and that is true. In some ways, that is a reason why it is up to ME to manage my new ways of eating rather than expect, as I look normal, others will be able to guess what I need.

This comes home to me even as I can still struggle to eat a meal I have prepared. It takes a long time to eat and sometimes, I just divide it into 2 meals as it tires my new mouth and makes it sore.

This is what I know is my new normal.

  • I get myself up each day between 8 and 8.30 a.m. to eat a nutritious breakfast or weetbix or cereal with fruit/yoghurt and milk
  • I take time to eat as it takes time and as I am retired, I get to enjoy reading the morning paper that’s been home-delivered
  • I will do any minor household chores which are shared with my also-retired husband e.g. a load of washing is put on the line
  • I check my emails, my blog (I have a blog which posts a new post 3 days a week) and any social media
  • Time to get dressed for the day. In October 2017, following the first major surgery I had lost a lot of weight and enjoyed the fact that I needed to buy new clothes. As a previously very overweight person, this was F U N
  • However, I found this to be a new normal for me called #dresswithpurpose and I joined in #everydaystyle for around a year and what a great community of support surrounded me post-cancer. I had no top teeth but as my husband said “I smiled with my eyes”.

Dress With Purpose photos: 2017 into 2018.

  • Each day, after a photo taken by my husband, I venture out for a coffee (and now more often, a treat to eat) somewhere local or more distant. I love this part of my new normal.
  • I have my coffee, I take out my mini journal kit, and draw/write and I people watch.
  • Sometimes I browse if I am at the shops, other times I may be out in nature and enjoy that too.
  • I have my own car which helps me be independent and drive myself to all of my Sydney appointments.
  • After this it is closer to the middle of the day and I come home when I am ready and get my very crunchy lunch ready. It is a joy to crunch.
  • More reading after lunch and sometimes more work/play via the computer.
  • Some outside chores including nurturing the plants that gives me further purpose in cancer recovery
  • Then it is meal preparation or simply getting small frozen version of an earlier meal from the freezer. Batch cooking is the way I go: meat meals made with mince, lamb shanks, beef slow cooked and of course teensy cakes for treats. I love them too.

Now I know this about my new normal.

I need to appreciate this new normal and the state of health I am in. So far, almost 2 years since diagnosis, there has been no return of cancer. I have the best health professionals looking after me and I am grateful eternally for them, their skills and their care.

I will continue to learn more about myself as I both age, and get used to ‘what’s inside my mouth’. I do know that pain comes and goes. I also am reassured that my mouth continues to be healthy inside and I am caring for it well.

I do not have any mobility problems with my right leg even though the fibula was removed for my new jaw. Thanks too for the skin and flesh, right leg!

I am loved and cared for by many as I do of them. This is a very good way to live.

In my 70th year I continue to enjoy creating with art, meeting up with friends for coffee rather than a meal, travelling to other cities by car for events and entertaining our family, along with continuing my engagement with school education, and promoting more about the awareness of this rare, but not nice, cancer called Head and Neck Cancer.

My new normal is awesome.

Denyse.

This post is being shared on link ups here, on Wednesday and  here on Thursday.

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Changing Me. 19/2019.

Changing Me. 19/2019

Changing me is I now realise ON-GOING!

It has been many years as I have mentioned in previous posts of living overweight and obese that has given me a skewed view of my image. My most recent post is here.

I am doing what I can now, to approach my thinking with:

  • kindness
  • self-care
  • words of encouragement

and seeing that thoughts are not always true.

I already use the Calm app for meditation each day, and often in taking a time-out will be mindful in whichever are my circumstances as I learn to be present and here….in the now.

Eating mindfully (and planning to eat) is helping me in these ways:

  • I do not follow those rules of ‘only concentrating on one food and mouthful at a time’ mindfully in eating.
  • I do now examine and observe my inner feelings (physical and emotionally) about the why and when of eating.
  • I am getting so much better at this!
  • I am also recording what I eat via a free app and it is Australian foods-based and gives me an idea of how well I am doing.
  • As a no-diet person, this feels good to have some control but also to eat within the generous range I have allowed myself.
  • I am using my fitbit to slowly up my steps each week by 500 steps  from a base of 6000.

On Tuesday 19 February 2019 I had my 3 month cancer check, and my Professor Jonathan Clark was delighted to see no reason for further surgery (yay for now) and when I mentioned my weight gain since ‘teeth’ he said “that’s good.” Oh, he means that is healthy and I am doing well! Of course now I get it…but as I chatted with his clinical nurse consultant who is just the best for me, she and I agreed that moving more is a good idea!!

 

On 23 February 2019 I posted this image and the words on Instagram.

One Year On.

As a person who was overweight to obese for decades, losing weight pre-cancer diagnosis & post cancer surgeries has been a mental issue.

I realise to others I look well, healthier and ok now.

I acknowledge I was 5kg+ lighter a year ago & pretty darned miserable at times because of eating restrictions due to 4 cancer surgeries & reconstruction inside my mouth.

I do think I did the best I could at the time to nourish myself but acknowledge how much I missed:

*chewing

*crunching

*biting

*savouring

FOOD from a variety of offerings! My shopping for over 14 months took me away from foods I missed biting, chewing, crunching & savouring.

From 21 Aug 2018 this changed. My upper prosthesis was fitted. It was novel to try the foods I’d missed: cheese on a cracker took minutes to eat. Then over time as my mouth & my brain handled the different foods better it was/is great.

Then, about a month or so ago the creeping up of my weight on the scales (once a month weigh in- years of measuring my worth via the scales is a horrid memory) was noted & I “have” to admit I knew what to do IF I still wanted to:

*like wearing my new clothes

*feel comfortable in my body

*enjoy all aspects & variations of foods I could now choose from

It was time to choose a better balance between foods that nourish & are enjoyable & to increase my movement each day.

This mindful eating plan I’ve made up is working for me.

I am now understanding the WHY of how I used food to deal with emotions & that it does not work like that MAKES so much sense!

Keeping myself active by changing my approach to movement. Upping the steps weekly by 500 a day,  starting at 6000 a day.

Most of all I want to add is how grateful I am to be well after nearly 2 years of oral cancer & that I can continue to learn best how to care for myself emotionally & physically!

Changing the voice in my head…. the inner critic…to low volume or mute whenever she begins to shout!

So have you ever taken steps to change you?

Denyse.

Joining with Min for Zen Tips Tuesday here.

Finding a place with Sue and Leanne here in MidLife Share The Love on Wednesday

and, of course, Lovin’ Life with Leanne here each Thursday.

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Cancer Is Always ‘There’. 2018.84

Cancer Is Always ‘There’. 2018.84

It is rare these days for me to compose a post and publish it immediately. I have planned posts, scheduled posts and draft posts. Today is different.

I need to write out my truth and my feelings based on recent, significant events for me: a Cancer Patient.

What Do I Mean “Cancer is always ‘there’?”

  • Once diagnosed with cancer I held onto the belief, rightly or wrongly, that my surgery would eliminate the cancer in my upper gums and behind one side of my top lip.
  • It did. In terms of reports back from the many lab results, biopsies at the time of the major surgery in July 2017, and the reassurances from my professional team.
  • However, I do, like many others who have been diagnosed with cancer, “know” that it could come back in another way or form….and also that the reason for my four surgeries has been because I had/have cancer.
  • The many (22 now) visits to Westmead Oral Sciences to have treatments and checks for the progress of my mouth healing, stent wearing and health of my gums is because of cancer.
  • This came home to me yesterday, ONE week after re-gaining what I thought I wanted most: my smile, when it appears that the top lip (cancer site) is tightening again and I need to do some exercises to help it gain more suppleness.
  • There I was, thinking (albeit naively) that the cancer thing was almost gone.
  • Nope, no and not at all really. Check ups, doctor’s visits, mouth checks …..it is not gone nor over by a long way.

Explaining My Mixed Emotions and Responses/Reactions via My Photos.

 

Thank you for reading.
I wonder if any readers who have cancer/had cancer might identify with this.
I am a relative newbie (only 15+ months since diagnosis) yet it feels like I have had cancer forever.
I guess I do.

Cancer is always ‘there’.

Denyse.

Linking with Sue and Leanne here for MidLife Share The Love linky.

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