Monday 25th May 2020

Head & Neck Cancer: My Life Now: 3 Years On. 41.1/2020.

Head & Neck Cancer: My Life Now: 3 Years On. 41.1/2020.

In April 2017, after much searching for “why” my upper gums and palate were so sore, swollen and inflamed, I insisted that my dentist “take the bridge and teeth out, please as…I need to know what is under it.” That was done after almost 3 years of “wondering why” and being told many different reasons by dentists that it was most likely candida and “you are not keeping under the bridge clean enough. Sigh. This story can be found here along with many as I have journaled the Head and Neck Cancer story here on the blog.

On 17 May 2017, after the removal of bridge and teeth, with worsening gum conditions, I received what was, in many ways, the answer I feared or at least had considered over the past year or  more before. Yes, it is CANCER and it is called Squamous Cell Carcinoma and off I was sent to the BEST place and people ever for more diagnosis, subsequent surgeries and much much more.

 

Summing up each year as a head and neck cancer patient with a rare diagnosis. 

2017.

May & June: Meeting my surgeons at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. Examinations, testing and discussion on maxillectomy and using part of my leg. Visits to Westmead Oral Sciences for future mouth reconstruction preparation. Waiting. Testing. Being very concerned but at least I had the answer!

July: 7 weeks after diagnosis the major surgery of 11 hours. ICU and then recovery in single room at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. This was for 10 days. Learned that I recover well and that I could speak (hallelujah) and eventually swallow water with no problems. Home. Learning to live much differently. Back for checkups: particularly of my leg which had donated skin and flesh.

August: September: October: at home recovery, lots of community nurse visits, learning how for eat differently and prepare food for myself. Independent walking then became driving the car again Back for a post-op check and to hear what was next.

November: On the day the same sex marriage result was announced I went into surgery for more skin to be added inside my mouth: taken from my thigh. It was all part of hopefully allowing my mouth to eventually settle to take a prosthesis of teeth.

It was announced I would become a Community Ambassador for Beyond Five.

December: watching progress of mouth and sending photos of the inside to my lovely Professor Clark for him to see it was going OK. Always relieved to hear back ‘yes.’

2018.

January: continue as for December.

February: third surgery. Adding a stent into the top part of my mouth to allow skin to stretch and eventually be able to fit in the prosthesis of teeth. Alas, this failed as the stent was removed too fast by my prosthodontic team much to my professor’s dismay and…..

March: I got the news a fourth surgery would be happening. Initially not happy at all, but realised it was inevitable…and my mouth was particularly challenging as they try so hard to work with ‘what is’ to have me look as much as possible as I did post any head and neck surgeries.

April: more time for me to see the prosthodontist to check the healing mouth and for my team to consider what would be next.

May: almost 12 months from diagnosis, back to COBLH as I call it for short….and a much bigger stent added in another 2+ hour surgery. Wow. Thigh gave up more skin for inside my upper lip.

June. July: So many drives back and forth to Sydney for prosthodontic work: measuring, practising with models of prosthesis with the eventual promise of teeth up top…..

World Head & Neck Cancer Day: July 2018. Held a virtual Soup for the Soul a fundraiser for Beyond Five and met the Central Coast Head and Neck Cancer Support Group at Gosford and became a member of this group.

21 August; Yes. Upper prosthesis fixed into the abutments and I had a smile back (a good one too, thank you team) after 14 months.

From then until next year, 2019, I had a considerable number of visits back to Westmead with adjustments and I learned ‘how to eat’ with teeth that were nothing like how my mouth had been post-cancer. More on the page as linked before.

2019.

January. An unexpected visit to COBLH for my head and neck surgeon to examine ‘extra skin’ which had begin to grow near the abutments on one side. This visit, as I found out directly was to ensure “cancer had not returned”. OH. It had not but it threw me a bit because I had not even given that a thought. This was when I realised CANCER is never far away from our thoughts.

February, March, April: some visits to both professionals in my team. Making adjustments and checking progress of skin inside my mouth. I admit I was often nervous of outcomes as my mouth was pretty sore most of the time. No-one could tell me ‘how long’ that would last but I continued to be reassured by my prosthodontist in particular “everything looks OK” “you are doing a good job keeping the area clean.”

May: 2 years since diagnosis and I was proud to have made it. I was incredibly grateful to my body for healing well and to all who cared for me and in particular to my patient and good listener husband.

End May: CT scan showed “all clear”

June: Visits became more spread out to the surgeon and prosthodontist and I navigated using these teeth to eat. It was and is a challenge. My right leg had some changes from the loss of the fibula as my right foot became affected with gait. But all OK really.

July: Continued visits to Westmead and put my energies into blogging about Head and Neck Cancer, interviewing a patient for Beyond Five and being part of World Head and Neck Cancer Day at Gosford Cancer Centre.

August, September, October, November, December. Regular check ups and visits to COBLH and Westmead but longer intervals. In October it was raised by my surgeon that a possible fifth surgery could be planned if mouth needed it but he had no real plans for it at that stage. Continuing to help raise awareness of head and neck cancer in various forms via social media. In November I celebrated my 70th Birthday!

 

2020.

January: continuing own care and progress at home.

February: visit to the prosthodontist where he was pleased with how upper gums were looking. I admitted to him my concern there may be need for further surgery as outlined by my surgeon and he took photos and would confer with him as needed. Took part in filming for Beyond Five series of nutrition videos for head and neck patients, carers and professionals.

Early March: Saw my head and neck surgeon who was delighted with my progress, no surgery needed and I remain “his poster girl for recovery”…see you in 6 months!! I was a guest speaker at a Charity Ball held by 4 doctors at Avoca to raise awareness of head and neck cancer and aid the work of Beyond Five with a generous donation.

And then COVID-19 stopped us all in our tracks for quite some time.

End May: as I write. My prosthodontist should have seen me for a check this coming week but Westmead is not open for regular visits yet. I am not concerned as my mouth is OK. I am not due to see my head and neck surgeon till September. I am going to my dentist here (the one where we got the diagnosis sorted!) in early June as he ensures the 8 teeth I have remain in good order.

Record Keeping: For Me!
Visits to Prof Jonathan Clark: Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. 2 hours each way by car. M1.
2017
Diagnosis: 17.5.17.
18.5.17 (diagnosis: surgery plan w A/Prof too)
6.7.17 (surgery #1 in COBLH)
27.717 (post op: A/Prof)

10.10.17 (cancer check)
15.11.17 (surgery #2: day. Down & home same day)
20.11.17 (post op)
5.12.17 (post op St George)

2018
7.2.18 (surgery #3: day. Stayed night before)
14.2.18 (post op St George)
1.5.18 (pre surgery #4)
16.5.18 (surgery #4 day. Stayed n/b)
2.10.18 (cancer check & upper prosthesis)
– long time between checks as I was seeing Prosthodontist a lot!

2019
8.1.19 extra cancer check: skin growing ok
19.2.19 cancer check
21.5.19 cancer check & CT done. All clear.
24.9.19 cancer check

2020
3.3.20 cancer check.

17 total to date.

Next due: September 2020.

Visits to Westmead Prosthodontist. 2 hours each way by car. M1.

2017  24.5.17 (pre surgery #1)30.5.17 6.11.17 (pre surgery #2)

2018  23.2.18 (post surgery #3) 1.3.18  7.3.18  15.3.18

22.3.18 28.3.18 12.4.18  28.5.18 (post surgery #4) 31.5.18

12.6.18  15.6.18  18.6.18  25.6.1  3.7.18   10.7.18   16.7.18

23.7.18   6.8.18   9.8.18

21.8.18: Upper Prosthesis Issued

28.8.18  10.9.18   25.9.18 8.10.18 (lower denture prep)  25.10.18

5.11.18  15.11.18  19.11.18  27.11.18   11.12.18

2019  21.1.19 (unscrewed UP)  4.3.19

13.5.19  16.7.19  5.8.19

17.9.19    25.11.19

2020 17.2.20  41 to date  Due: 25.5.20 (postponed due to COVID

What is life like for me now as a head and neck cancer patient…over 3 years later?

  • I think about my cancer less
  • I maintain my cleaning of the mouth more willingly and never miss it because I would hate the spoil all that hard work!
  • I accept that whilst I have ‘teeth’ on top that look fine, they do not function nearly as well as natural teeth.
  • I know how to allow for that more these days in terms of food choices.
  • I am more grateful than ever to have had such a cancer experience so that I can share, help and be part of a community which may need assistance from a patient like me
  • I am less fearful of cancer’s return but I am never complacent
  • I do my best to help others who may find my story helpful
  • I blog less than those initial 2 years but maintain the updates about head and neck cancer as it is for me
  • I connect with others on-line to encourage, share and offer support where it may be needed
  • I like to help where I can to keep the messages of head and neck cancer current
  • I do this via my social media and re-sharing words, links and information from Beyond Five
  • I maintain social media connections via a facebook group from New Zealand for head and neck cancer patients, carers and families
  • I am willing to share my story for others: meeting them, making a speech and connecting via emails and on-line

However, I am less the ‘head and neck cancer patient’ these days.

I am more Denyse, who is a retired K-6 principal and teacher, wife to B, mother to K & M, and Grandma to eight wonderful grandchildren. I remain passionate about education: of the self, and of kids…and support on-going education at any age. I love to connect via my blog, meet up for a coffee and cake, take photos to share on instagram, make art in all kinds of ways….and get outside to be “oh so thankful” to be here…to be well….and to share!

Denyse.

23 May 2020.

Written, in part,  in readiness for World Head and Neck Cancer Day in July 2020. Events this year will be virtual and I am sure, I will be sharing more as time goes on. For now:

 

 

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My Latest Head & Neck Cancer News.120/2019.

My Latest Head & Neck Cancer News.120/2019.

For those who are new to the blog and my head and neck cancer story, all posts can be found here. 

As I reach the end of the year, it’s timely to do an update of how it is to be living with the results of head and neck cancer.

Specifically for me, the cancer was found inside my mouth: top gums and under the top lip.

It was named squamous cell carcinoma at first diagnosis after the initial biopsy but after my first surgery here, the results from the massive pathology testing done then according to my head and neck cancer surgeon was a form of verrucous squamous cell carcinoma. I do not pretend to understand my version of head and neck cancer. It IS oral cancer but for ease of others finding my blog I file it under head and neck cancer.

I am told by my professor that my version of this cancer is rare. The fact that head and neck cancer like mine (no Human Papilloma Virus/HPV cause) and no risk factors like smoking or drinking alcohol makes me “rare of rare”. Professor Jonathan Clark AM 2019. Sigh. Ok, I am glad it’s rare I guess but there is a puzzlement always about the how and why of my version of this cancer that I discuss with my dentist (who ordered to original biopsy after I had him take the bridge and teeth out…so I have learned to accept the no reason as best as I can.

Always grateful for my head & neck cancer surgeon

Supporting Others Helps Me Too.

My Blog.

This place (right here!) provided me, initially, with a way to tell my head and neck cancer story. I am glad I still keep going with the updates. Now as I hear, it can also be a place that others who are newly diagnosed, family members, friends and professionals can pop in, using the top of the page link to see all posts.

My Social Media Presence.

Twitter.

I like to talk (!) and connect so when I want to do this, without face to face catch ups (we are all over the world!) then it’s to social media I go. I have an active twitter account https://twitter.com/DenyseWhelan1 where I follow head and neck cancer patients, carers and professionals. Some of those include Beyond Five where I am an Ambassador, my fellow Ambassadors Julie McCrossin and Marty Doyle. The New Zealand based Facebook group, found here, has two of its admins Maureen Jensen and Tammy Von Keisenberg who are on twitter.

Facebook.

My blog’s facebook page https://www.facebook.com/denysewhelanblogs/ is where I do my main connecting these days and also use this profile in the Head and Neck Cancer Support Aotearoa. If you have head and neck cancer, or a family member or friend does, this group with over 500 members is an active and supportive place to share, read and find information. Meeting up with Fergus was a delight and getting to know Tara too. These people are the first who have also been diagnosed with a head and neck cancer in similar place to mine and we all have Chris O’Brien Lifehouse as our cancer centre.

Groups.

The local Head and Neck Cancer group for me (Central Coast NSW)  has a social media presence with a public facebook page found here: 

Beyond Five: found here, also lists meeting days and updates from groups around Australia. This is the link to the general page.

Most months I attend the Central Coast group meetings and next year will continue the practice. The group is open to all, and each 3rd Thursday of the month from 10 – noon we can be found at Erina’s Cancer Council rooms, within Erina Fair. Gary Mar is the group’s facilitator.

Beyond Five Ambassador.

I am delighted to announce I am continuing in this role for 2020. I have really enjoyed learning how to be the Ambassador that works for me and for Beyond Five and this is going well. It was in this role that I supported Soup for the Soul Fundraiser back in July for World Head and Neck Cancer with  my own (on-line!) and the event held at Cancer Centre Gosford Hospital in July. The group is grateful for the Head and Neck Cancer Patient Co-ordinator Nurse Lisa Shailer for her insights and lead and to Twynette Dickinson from the Cancer Council for her interest and presence.

Eating

I planned my eating in advance of going to the Christmas Lunch. It’s the best way for me.

  • I have found eating some foods fine. These include breakfast cereals with milk, some cracker biscuits with cheese, a small cake, grapes, mango and some meals which include mashed potato, meat (like cutlet or steak) and some tomatoes which can add some liquid to the food. It is a challenge for me to eat outside the home so I have accepted that unless it is say at my daughter’s house, I will be fine with a cup of coffee, a cake or something to dip into the coffee.

At Head & Neck Cancer Support Group Christmas Lunch this was my manageable and enjoyable choice to eat while socialing.

 

  • The foods that can be ordered out take me far too long to eat and my mouth gets sore inside. Whilst I have upper teeth they are tight inside my mouth and up against the gums and the biting and chewing that is enough for safe swallowing takes time. I get tired. The food gets cold. I tried to eat a meal out once and was refused a bag to take the rest home so another reason for no eating out is it is very expensive to waste money on food I cannot eat in two stages.

 

  • My main meals at home are like a bread & butter plate size. Or I use a regular plate and eat half one meal, cover it, and refrigerate it and eat the rest the next day. Because I have found this is a good strategy it means at least once a week I am eating some red meat (iron) that I love and some accompaniments and also sharing this meal with my husband. Most meals though, are ones I have made in bulk and are in small containers for me to eat after defrosting.

  • Occasionally I will try a salad as caesar salad is a favourite but again, I take so long and my mouth gets sore, so I make it in two halves. I cannot eat corn on the cob, tomatoes were lovely but they are affecting my mouth by stinging now (skin is very sensitive) and an apple…well, how long do you have? I cannot bite into it and the skin is too challenging, so if I give an apple a go, I may just grate it.

 

  • I have never been a spicy food person and would be hard pressed to have anything like that now or anything too hot. Cold is better in my mouth than hot.

 

  • Inside my mouth the skin is of different ages – some was added in 2017 and the remainder in 2018. My right thigh is the donor for my delicate areas between the gums and inside of lips. I have, as you would know, the flesh and skin from my right leg as my palate.

The wounds are where the bone (fibula) and skin/flesh were taken in July 2017

  • What is interesting is that because the top of my mouth is made from my leg (skin, flesh and bone) it acts like a legI am fortunate that the palate no longer grows hair.

 

  • However, I cannot taste nor feel any food in the top half of my mouth. IF I really want to savour a texture or taste, I need to put the food upside down in my mouth!

Appearance

Unless there is a reason to do so, I no longer mention to anyone new that I have had cancer. The reasons I did in my first years was about the way I looked. I certainly DID look different with no top teeth (upper prosthesis) and a mouth that was healing along with my leg. It was, for someone like me, a talking point or conversation started in 2017 and until I got my upper prosthesis in August 2018.

After that for a few months those I had met before were amazed to see me with teeth and smiling..even my head and neck surgeon (above) who remarked “Denyse you look fantastic…great work Suhas” when I’d sent him the email photo of me after Suhas (the prosthodontist) had fitted my upper prosthesis.

My top lip on the right hand side is pulled in (still) despite the months I spent with a stent trying to push it out. At least the stent did the work for me to have the upper prosthesis fitted. My top lip and under my nose is completely numb. It is very dry too and can itch. I have bought tube after tube of lip creams/balms/ointments to be told that there are some nerves in there that no longer work and so I just need to keep things in better condition for me to feel more comfortable instead of this constant tightness. The top lip appearance changes completely when I smile. So, I smile as much as I can!!

Nothing is as it seems. Sometimes.

I would be less than honest if I did not make a comment about this. I have found as time passes, that with little visible differences now in me, there is no real interest in my head and neck cancer. This is in my family and friend relationships too. I have pondered this and I believe once the novelty (strange word to select) has worn off this cancer diagnosis of mine  – it was very unusual – then people move on. In some ways I have but I also can never forget I have had cancer.

Each time my mouth moves one way or another, I feel the difference. No-one can see it of course, but I know it. When I can not stretch out my right leg or even my right foot then I am reminded of the sacrifice one part of my body made for another.

In the lead up to my third year of living with the diagnosis of a head and neck cancer (May 2020) I do take time to count my blessings and express gratitude (of course) but there is something quite profound about having a part of your body placed in another part of your body so you can function and live as well as possible.

Celebrating my 70th Birthday: with my husband who has been by my side throughout almost 49 years of marriage, but even more in the years since I was diagnosed with HNC.

I do get on with my life (as a now 70 year old!!) of course but have to say, despite the head and neck cancer existence for me, that I am noticing I can be more distracted and interested in hobbies such as my art and designs, getting out to meet people, going to the shops..ahem..for coffee of course. NOT always clothes shopping as my husband seems to think.

Am I grateful?

Yes I am.

However, I will continue to be monitored and tested for a return of cancer until at least 5 years has elapsed from diagnosis. So, I will be looking at May 2022.

Appointments scheduled.

Ask any cancer patient and they will likely say that once the more frequent appointments spread out (for the good news reasons like mine) there is an initial feeling of what now? I did have that this year once I got to May and was told my future appointments would be 4 monthly. So I am back to the Prof early March 2020 at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. My prosthodontist who saw me for my…40th appointment late November does not need me to return till mid March at Westmead. I am never quite sure of what the next appointments will entail. I trust I will continue with my path of wellness for which I am very grateful.

Head and Neck Cancer Patient Forum. 2020

On Friday June 12 in 2020 at the Garvan Institute I will be a patient who is interviewed about my experiences with head and neck cancer. It is open to patients , carers, family and more. The details are here. Costs are free to attend for some and a small fee for others. The link is here and I will be updating no doubt in 2020.

About my word of year 2019: Integrate.

When I chose this word at the end of 2018 it was after a conversation with my husband where he pointed out that maybe my cancer could be less important in my daily life. Mmm. Easy to say from a non-cancer person but much harder to do for me. Then. However, when I had the word engraved on the bracelet I have worn daily since 1 January 2019, on the back it says “HNC & Me” meaning that over time I hoped to grow to the point of head and neck cancer being a part of me but not the main part. I can now announce, I have noticed this for myself in the past few months so like all things, it happened in its own time.

Thank You.

The blog is my place for recording what I can share with the wider world about what it is like to have head and neck cancer. I now know some newly diagnosed patients and families have been assisted by reading the blog posts which I keep in a special page on my home page – right hand side. When I give someone my business card, the website is there and my information as an Ambassador for Beyond Five; head and neck cancer awareness on-line.

Top: L: Beyond Five Ambassador R: My Prosthodontist & Nurse: Westmead Bottom: L: Professor Jonathan Clark AM R: Sr Cate Froggatt

 

Earlier this year, I was published here too if you are interested. Life, Death Whatever take submissions from around the globe and a book will be coming in 2020

Thank you to my readers. This was a long-ish update!

Denyse.

Joining each Wednesday with Sue and Leanne here for Mid Life Share the Love Linky.

On Thursdays I link here for Lovin Life with Leanne and friends and on Fridays, it’s Open Slather here with Alicia.

Copyright © 2019 denysewhelan.com.au – All rights reserved.

 

 

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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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Two Years Ago: Before My Cancer Was Diagnosed. Pt 2. 31/2019.

Two Years Ago: Before My Cancer Was Diagnosed. Pt 2. 31/2019.

For anyone affected by a life-changing diagnosis that comes after some time of illness or maybe there is no sign, time becomes a part of memories of ‘back then’.

In writing here on my blog, I know I am helping myself as I continue to process my thoughts, actions and concerns relating to my eventual and pretty shocking diagnosis is a rare cancer in my mouth. For those who would like to read about this in the series of posts here is the link to the page called Denyse – Head & Neck Cancer.

It was recently that trawling through on-line journals I realised how much I had gone through along the way so I wrote the first post in this series is here. 

This post takes a different theme which was relevant to why and how I was feeling and acting in those months from December 2016 into May 2017.

March 2017.

It must be just me. I don’t know how to settle well into my life now it’s over 2 years since we left Sydney and are making a retirement life for us. How come “I” cannot settle. What is WRONG with me? My husband is doing it with ease. In fact, he is already volunteering in two community organisations, is planning to continue his tertiary studies. Me? I face each morning with trepidation. I find it hard to get up. To what, I ask. I go through the motions of making it look like I am OK. But I cannot fool myself nor my husband. It’s me, I just do NOT know what is wrong with me…..I know my GP says I am somewhat anxious but it’s for a reason which related to stress about my IBS. She tries me on some anti-depressant meds briefly but they affect my gut. I see my psychologist who again tells me, “you need to continue exposure therapy.” I am losing weight because I am too scared to eat because of IBS.

This look on my face here is me gaunt and showing the fear within even with my then-smile. Underneath those teeth was …..no-one knew.

What Did I Do?

More of what seemed to help me. At least it passed the time. It did not ease the knot in my gut for long but I was focussing on self-help. I must have listened to 100s of hours from many. These are people whose words I continue to value and have all of their CDs still. I listen to few now, but back then I thought they were helpful for my mind to slow a little. I used to listen in a semi-meditative way or as I was making some mandalas or patterns. I found these people’s words matched a lot of what I was hearing from my husband and my psychologist too.

My blog was a great spot for me to gather my thoughts and be interested in others. I was so pleased that I HAD made my blogging a priority. Mind you, there were days when I was not interested in connecting on line…but I did and continue to do so in the overall goal of remaining connected.

I probably did not let on to many other than my poor husband just how bad I was feeling on some occasions. I felt bad about feeling bad! I wondered if there was any chance I could feel ‘like I hoped’. My former GP who I continued to see in tandem with my current one for the next 2 months, was kindly but even she seemed to run out of reasons why I continued to feel so anxious.

The age old question: Was I anxious because of the likelihood of IBS or was the likelihood of IBS making me anxious?

I tried SO hard to make my inner life a better experience! I did art of one kind or another most days, I ventured out on short drives when I felt well enough, I cooked a little bit but I was so anxious about people visiting I could not enjoy the company of family nor was there any way I would drive to Sydney to see anyone. Nope. Not on.

Here are some of the many sayings that I hoped to absorb and integrate into my life. These were posted on Instagram. That account was hacked in May so I no longer have the IG versions, just my photos.

And all this time, my mouth hurt.

  • The skin behind the upper gums where the bridge was continued to be inflamed.
  • No the extra cleaning done in early March (see first post) had not changed anything.
  • The skin was growing over the top of the front teeth.
  • This matter concerned me greatly. I know I told my husband often enough.
  • But, as no-one in the dental or medical field had deemed this to be of any great consequence, I continued on.

Sadly, in pain emotionally and physically.

I hope that this post is helpful in understanding that my internal dilemma was a huge influence as I thought “I made all of this happen“. It would appear, that I may have been thinking about cancer far longer than even I realised. It IS true.

Next time: I could not bear it any longer….. “take the teeth and bridge out, I HAVE to know what is underneath!”.

Denyse.

Joining in these link ups:

MidLife Share the Love: Here on Wednesdays

Lovin’ Life: Here on Thursdays

Open Slather: Here on Fridays.

Do visit these link ups and join in the reading and commenting. We ALL need each other here in the land of blogging and comments are our “GOLD”.

 

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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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Eating With No Teeth*- Head & Neck Cancer. 17/2019.

Eating With No Teeth* – Head & Neck Cancer. 17/2019.

Update on Being a Head & Neck Cancer Patient. 

Oh I “did” have 8 teeth*…in my lower jaw and they remain. Yay for “some” teeth.

In the past year I know how far I have come as far as eating is concerned since my Head and Neck Cancer diagnosis in May 2017. I have been delighted to have an upper prosthesis of teeth now screwed into my abutments in my jaw. They were attached on 21 August 2018.

The Before and After of “Teeth Day” 21 Aug

OH HAPPY day….it really was but I had many eating lessons to come and I still do. More on that in a future post.

Day 1 post surgery to around Day 8.

Back to those months when I was post-first surgery. I recall being fearful of what it would be like not to eat but with a fluid drip and then a gradually introduced naso-gastric feeding tube my body was cared for. My mind did accept what it was until around Day 7 post-surgery when I recall feeling hangry. You know: angry because of hunger. So, when I was given the chance to see if my mouth (and brain!) remembered how to sip water and my throat allowed it to swallow…remember all of the inside of my mouth had been affected in some or many ways but my reconstructive surgery…it was heaven!

This:

Day 9 and Day 10. Discharge on Day 10.

This:

First meal in hospital. Then next 3 times I did not enjoy it much.

Early days at home. First Weeks.

I have IBS and with an empty gut receiving food for the first time in a long time, as well as the prescription of a far too strong for me anti-biotic on the morning I left hospital as a “your drain in your leg looks infected” ….my gut (and I) were just not happy in that first 10 days home even though I was starving. Poor husband did his best to please, and I also tried to be helpful but it really was a challenging time.

When my GP unravelled the cause of the massive diarrhoea episodes I had, he told me to forget any (hospital dietitian suggestions of ) liquid meal replacements, protein additives and eat what I could and felt like. The relief was amazing and coming off the giant dose of anti-biotics helped as the leg looked fine. The toast in these pics really wasn’t consumed but I liked ‘tasting what was on it. Avocado and soup were good friends, and also peanut butter eaten off the spoon. Jelly and icecream have never been a favourite but they provided so much mouth comfort with their smooth coolness.

The next weeks turned into months.

By the time the second week at home was over, despite my sore leg, I was able to do some meal prep. It frustrated me that I depended on my husband’s kindness and labour as I wanted to contribute. Eventually I worked out how I could have some say and also make some meals that would work for me. We mostly ate separate meals anyway because of his health. I also had many types of soup: homemade vegetable soup, pumpkin soup & tomato soup. For someone who was never a cereal girl at breakfast, weetbix and milk were/are my go-to foods!

Why this post about eating as a Head and Neck cancer patient?

I have written about my management of eating in two posts.

Part one is here, part two here.

Why I decided to do this more detailed one is for any  newly-diagnosed head and neck cancer patients who come here to read and view. Sometimes it is the head and neck cancer patient’s carer who needs some ideas. It can be very overwhelming and confronting when something as normal as eating & drinking (let alone speaking and swallowing) is changed dramatically via a cancer diagnosis.

I was fortunate in many ways. I had a limited time with only a naso-gastric tube before returning to eating and drinking as well as I could.

I know some people have long-term eating and drinking challenges following different Head and Neck cancers and procedures.

My health is good. I am looking to the 2 years marking the first cancer surgery in July 2017. What I know is that I may have to modify my eating again over time if more surgery is prescribed inside my mouth to enlarge the space between the lip and ‘teeth’ on upper prosthesis.

How To Seek More Information On-Line.

In my case, the words and written information from my Chris O’Brien Lifehouse dietitian helped me. I learned about the important of protein and fat in a post surgery diet. I also learned to value-add and I am grateful for that. For information on Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, go here.

Each head and neck cancer patient needs to be guided by their professional team.

The site and organisation called Beyond Five has a comprehensive page of information and this takes you to pages on nutrition with links here.

Beyond Five is the organisation I am working for as an Ambassador in 2019 to raise awareness of Head & Neck Cancer.

The stories of others with Head & Neck cancers are shared for here all to read:

 

This is a link to finding avenues of supportive care on the Beyond Five website.

There are support groups to help you as well. Here is the link, again from Beyond Five, to those in Australia and New Zealand. Correct at the time of posting.

Recently it was World Cancer Day and I submitted my story which was published here.

I AM a head & neck cancer patient

I WILL share for others to be aware

 

This post is going live on the morning I will be driving 2 hours to Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, donating some craft supplies to their Arterie program, having the first meeting with Beyond Five for 2019 and then visiting my Head & Neck surgeon, Professor Jonathan Clark and Clinical Nurse Consultant & Surgical Assistant Sr Cate Froggatt. After my cancer check, I will be better informed about ‘what’s next’ and then drive myself back home!

  • UPDATE: the meeting went well and provided much for me to discover as I move into my role as Ambassador to Beyond Five, and then my cancer check went well too. My professional team told me the inside of my mouth looked better when they last saw me early January and no surgery is required (I always add, at this stage…as my journey has had some detours!) and I will be back for a 3 month cancer check in mid May. That will be 2 years since diagnosis!

Wishing you well, from me. a head and neck cancer patient, to patients, carers, family and friends.

Denyse.

Joining with Sue and Leanne here for Midlife Share the Love link up on Wednesday

On Thursday linking up with Leanne for Lovin’ Life here.

 

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Not A Smooth Recovery Path For Me: Head & Neck Cancer. 2018.133.

Not A Smooth Recovery Path For Me: Head & Neck Cancer. 2018.133.

Update One: Monday 24 December, is that whilst it is always disappointing to have changes like this in recovery, I am actually able to manage the issue of pain, when it arises and am feeling better in general.

Update Two: Monday 14 January, the pain comes and goes but the news from my Head & Neck surgeon is that he was looking for cancer when I saw him on 8 January. This made me quite concerned. Whilst there was not cancer there as he could see, I do now know there could be another surgery this year. Sigh.

It’s Friday 21 December 2018 and not a normal blogging day for me at all.

But, head and neck cancer recovery is not ‘normal’ I guess!

My blog has been a great source of comfort to me as I can write down what is happening to me, and often receive support in return.

That is lovely.

Today I just need to share this story.

Since my last blog post here, I have continued to be back and forth to the great team I have at Westmead: my prosthodontist and nurse. Each visit since October – when I last saw my Head and Neck cancer surgeon and nurse – has been about:

  • checking the health of the skin which was added to my upper lip (under it) last May
  • checking I am keeping the metal abutments clean where they are attached to the upper teeth prosthesis
  • and fitting me for a partial lower denture to add to my remaining 8 teeth

Showing my mouth’s flexibility – reduced now.

I have had some pain. It is like a sharp nerve pain and each time I mentioned it I was told it is part of ‘re-modelling’ and I have taken that to mean, this will go on as my new mouth and lip settle into their space. I am pretty good at managing pain but earlier this week I needed to share what had been noted by me after seeing my G.P.

  • the pain, which initially we/I thought was from some abrasion of the new tender inner side of the lip against the prosthesis was not likely to have been only from there…because
  • when I tried to use my small micro brush to clean in between the gaps left at the top of the screwed in prosthesis there was  no gap 
  • where the gap had been was skin, resting and immoveable, onto the top of the acrylic prosthesis

After my G.P. saw it, I sent these photos to my Professor and the Prosthodontist. The prosthodontist rang to say, stop using the microbrushes and use the water pik only to clean. The professor emailed to say “come and see me early January for a closer look”.

Yay to having responsive professionals. Very grateful.

Not so happy for the pain it is causing, the lip tightening even more and the disappointment that things are not going as I had hoped. Probably as my team had hoped too!

On the positive side, I have overcome setbacks before AND I trust my professional team BUT this is not a situation I imagined.

Skin does its thing it seems. My post here is about how the stent being taken out too soon prevented the full healing and I needed a 4th surgery and then over 3 months with a new stent.

I seem to think….more surgery may be on the cards.

Sigh.

I am taking pain medication as advised by my G.P. I am doing all I can to treat myself more gently. I am looking forward to seeing the family on Christmas Day here but my eating may be even more compromised by then. Who knows?

Many I know in the Head and Neck cancer support groups are in quite different stages of healing, acceptance of many aspects of their recovery and managing things well. I am buoyed by them, and already support for me and my update has helped. I also know as an Ambassador for Beyond Five, that those of us with Head and Neck cancers are affected by treatments long after the five years.

I am just over 19 months since diagnosis. I am also less patient than some! I am, always very grateful for my cancer treatments and follow-ups in an Australian setting here:

Chris O’Brien Lifehouse

The late Prof Chris O’Brien. In the hospital named after him.

Westmead Oral Restorative Sciences

Thank you for your support, friends from blogging land and readers!

Denyse.

 

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Head & Neck Cancer: “Beyond Five” Ambassadorship.2018.130.

Head & Neck Cancer:”Beyond Five” Ambassadorship.2018.130.

Last week I wrote a post called Farewell and Hello. It was pretty long so I stopped at Farewell promising to be back for Hello. Here we go!

Regular followers here know that I was diagnosed with head and neck cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) in my upper gums and under the top lip. The whole story is here, in posts, from the day I was told until the recent post on adjusting my eating requirements when I am out of the house.

Hello, I am now a Beyond Five Ambassador!

How this came about was partly after this day in October 2018 when I was back at ‘my’ hospital Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, but I had offered earlier this year if there was any way I could help spread the news about head and cancer awareness I would like to do so. I had already been sharing the work of Beyond Five here on the blog for World Head and Neck Cancer Day 2018.

Following that day, the Board of Beyond Five met, Sr Froggatt and Professor Clark are board members and Nadia Rosin is Manager, Business & Communications,  and I then received a formal letter of invitation to become a Beyond Five Ambassador.

Role of Community Ambassador

  • • Share your personal head and neck cancer story for use in Beyond Five communication e.g. website, social media portals etc.
  • • Raise awareness of Beyond Five through family, friends, other personal connections.
  • • Where possible, attend events e.g. patient support group meetings, education days to help raise awareness of Beyond Five.
  • • Support Beyond Five grant applications where relevant e.g. as a consumer representative.
  • • Provide feedback to Beyond Five to help us improve and develop the way we work.

About Beyond Five.

Background

Beyond Five was established in December 2014 and is Australia’s only not-for-profit organisation supporting patients with head and neck cancer, caregivers, family and health professionals.

Beyond Five was established to provide evidence based, comprehensive, easy to understand and easy to access information to everyone, regardless of where they live.

Beyond Five is the first organisation in Australia supporting patients and their families through their cancer journey, from diagnosis to treatment and life after cancer.

Mission

Beyond Five’s mission is to improve the quality of life of everyone affected by head and neck cancer through education and access to support and to raise awareness of head and neck cancer nationally. We are committed to working collaboratively with all specialties across Australia to achieve our mission.

 

I have joined the inaugural Ambassador, Julie McCrossin and Marty Doyle too. Their stories and mine, can now be found here on the Beyond Five site. There will be more ‘thinking time’ for my involvement and what form it may take as everyone is going to be on a break soon. We are getting together in February 2019. I look forward to helping where I can especially now I am post almost all of my cancer treatments and now in ‘check-up and check-in’ mode.

I know that I am keen and ready to help others learn more about head and neck cancer as it is not well-known. In fact I had no idea you could get squamous cell carcinoma inside your mouth (and other areas of the skin inside the head & neck region, till my day of diagnosis in May 2017.

And here we are sending Season’s Greetings.

I wish that no-one had cancer of any kind, of course, but the fact of life is we do. I want as many do, to help pay back the time and effort and research that has gone into the amazing surgeries and mouth reconstructions I had. That I can smile and eat well again is testament to the wonderful work of my team and their integration of allied professionals too. I have written posts about how many helped get me well again. Now, it’s onward….and to say I am glad to be an Ambassador for Beyond Five is an understatement. It is an honour and a privilege to be in this new role.

I want to do the role justice, and help others as I too have been helped.

Thank you to the Board of Beyond Five for entrusting me with this role as your Ambassador.

Denyse.

Joining with Sue and Leanne here for Midlife Share the Love and with Leanne here for Lovin Life link up.

 

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