Thursday 30th June 2022

Woman Of Courage #65. Denyse Whelan & Head & Neck Cancer. 92/2021.

Woman Of Courage #65. Denyse Whelan & Head & Neck Cancer. 92/2021.

In July 2021 The Women of Courage posts will be connected in some way to World Head and Neck Cancer Month (July) and the #WHNCD Day on 27 July 2021. Those who have followed my blog since 2017 know I was diagnosed with a rare Head and Neck Cancer in my upper gums and under the top lip. More here.

Two years ago… I tentatively courageously launched Women of Courage series on my blog and here was what I said then:

I got this idea from attending the Newcastle Writers Festival in April 2019 and hearing the wonderful Jane Caro speak about her book Accidental Feminists. IF you ever get a chance to listen to or read Jane’s works they are very good.

What I considered after that day and in the days to come is how we women have a tendency to underplay our achievements and whatever else we are doing in our lives. I know this is changing.

This third series of blog posts on Denyse Whelan Blogs to be found here will continue to be published each Thursday.

Here is the introduction to the series.

Courage is strength in the face of pain or grief. It’s doing something that frightens you. We face situations that demand courage every day. These situations provide us with choices, and the way we respond to those choices determines our future. Dayne Shuda

This woman of courage story is making a change because it’s about me.

The changes are because I have written many updates about my head and neck cancer story and they can all be found here.

And when I first started the series back in 2019 I did write a post about being a woman of courage (not numbered)  but did not make it about head and neck cancer, instead making it about my sudden departure from my career as a primary school principal. That took a lot of courage. The post is here.

What have you faced in your life, with head and neck cancer,  where you have had to be courageous?

  • I have needed often to remember that I have been frightened, fearful and scared before quite a few of the surgeries and…
  • afterwards I know that by calling on my skills and experiences from the past, I get through them.
  • It doesn’t mean I am fearless…not at all, but I can now, because of previous experiences, have great confidence that things for me will go OK. Not always well but OK.
  • I also had (and still do) an enormous amount of trust in my professional team.
  • Both my husband and I knew and felt that from Day 2 of diagnosis, when I met my Professor and his associate, along with visiting Chris O’Brien Lifehouse where I would have my surgery.
  • I was nervous about the upcoming surgery (the big one which would take the cancer and reconstruct my mouth with part of my leg) but I never ever wanted to do anything differently.
  • I feel exactly the same over 4 years later.


How did this change you in any way? Please outline further if this has been the case.

  • Interestingly getting told I had  squamous cell carcinoma found in my upper gums and under one lip actually was more of a relief than a shock.
  • Surprised by that?
  • Well, I had no answers to what was happening inside my mouth for around a year and it was not until I, along with my dentist, decided (I really really had to find courage for this!) that all the teeth attached to the upper bridge in my mouth needed removal.
  • The skills via meditation, reading and learning from both my husband ( a counsellor in training, then), my psychologist and my GP came to the fore.
  • It was never easy and it sometimes needed drugs. The OK ones. But I did it.
  • Everything that challenged my thoughts I stood up to with these words: ‘I do hard things’


Is there something you learned from this that you could recommend to help others who need courage?

  • There is something in each of us that perhaps we are not aware of on a conscious level but that we can call upon when faced with life changing news.
  • In my case it was the news I had a rare and unusual cancer in my mouth.
  • I learned that there are experts who can guide me and help me.
  • I also learned not to use Dr Google as they say.
  • For me, once I had made up my mind my team knew its thing, I was right.
  • It did not mean I was leaving everything up to them!
  • I was proactive in finding out what to expect.
  • One of the doctors was kind enough to answer my questions via email.
  • I only had to ask. Never be afraid to ask!
  • I also prepared myself physically (not in a fitness way because I am not like that by nature) by using the time before my surgery to do some cooking for the freezer once I was home, and having practical items like clothing etc I could use in hospital.
  • I am a planner and organiser by nature so I did the parts the patient could do, whilst my team of doctors, surgeons, prosthodontists, nurses and so on did theirs.


Do you think you are able to be more courageous now if the life situation calls for it? Why is that?

  • Yes I am and I do.
  • I have applied so much of the experience of having faced the diagnosis of head and neck cancer and what it meant for me using aspects of exposure therapy.
  • I face what I am afraid of and do things in incremental ways.
  • I learned this to face the extraction of the teeth and bridge back in April 2017 and it built my confidence in small ways.
  • I also had the chance to take some risks which previously (in the years 2015-early 2017) I was too fearful to try: including going as a passenger in the car with my husband driving, driving to Sydney, going to appointments.
  • Each of these, I did with my husband for all of 2017 – often I was physically unable to as my leg was recovering from its surgery too and into 2018 when one day, I said…
  • “I am taking myself to Westmead today”. I knew the drive, I love my car and I was ready to do this. I did. And from that time I have driven myself to Westmead Oral Sciences. for many treatments (that’s the generic name for my sessions at the prosthodontist)
  • I have, of course, been driven by my husband for all four of my surgeries. He also brought me to a cancer check last September as I was unable to drive post wound surgery.


Is there any message you would give to others facing a situation where courage could be needed?

  • You might surprise yourself.
  • Do not under estimate your human qualities and abilities.
  • I also support getting some help as well.
  • We often need some more counselling AFTER a major life event so do make sure you see someone who helps with that. I am seeing a psychologist again too.
  • Don’t think you have to do anything alone.
  • There is always someone who just might understand and there may be support services too.


Head and Neck Cancer Australia – formerly Beyond Five – is a huge resource for patients, families, carers, and professionals to become more informed and aware of Head and Neck Cancer. My blog posts, since my diagnosis in May 2017, were of interest to my head and neck surgeon and his nurse when I spoke about them at one of my appointments and as a result of expressing interest in helping and having an informal interview, I was offered the role of Ambassador for Head and Neck Cancer Australia. This is my 5th year of recovery from head and neck cancer and my 4th year of being on board the team at H.A.N.C.A.  with other Ambassadors. It is a privilege to give back.

In writing the stories of Women of Courage, these women, all with Head and Neck Cancer affecting them, contributed their stories here. Thank you to them all.

Maureen Jansen.

Her story is here.

Tara Flannery.

Her story is here.

Julie McCrossin AM.

Her story is here.

Yvonne McClaren.

Her story is here.

Cosette Calder.

Her story is here.

Anne Howe.

Her story is here.

Thank you too, to all those who read and comment on my blog posts. It make a difference to knowing I am supported and cared for and about.

3 Year Difference. July 2018-July 2021.


My stories and photos along with suggested links and websites must not be seen as medical advice. I write this blog from my experience as a head and neck cancer patient. Words from others are accordingly from their personal experience and not to be taken as nutritional advice. Seek what you might need from qualified health professionals  who understand the needs of cancer patients.  Denyse Whelan. 2021.

Joining with Natalie here for Weekend Coffee Share.

Copyright © 2021 – All rights reserved.




  1. You’re amazing, Denyse. Thanks for living. 🙂

  2. Fabulous to see you’ve featured yourself here Denyse! I love all your responses and am not surprised at some of your thoughts. Having read many of your blog posts I get a feel of what you’re like and you are one of the most courageous people I know!

    • Oh thanks Debbie, that is lovely of you to say.

      I was never going to make that part of me one of the stories until it made sense for the World Head and Neck Cancer week, so I did.

      Can you believe the number of women who did share their stories too about head and neck cancer? I am both humbled and thankful they did. I also asked more who declined. I understand that too. It’s a mix of emotions for me reading others’ stories but I am glad, I finally joined the group.

      The series is ending in September. I am glad I opened it up again but I am ready to close now.

      Hope the weekend is OK. We are warm, cosy and I have a lot of creating fun to take my mind off things covid wise..and some social media scrolling with morning tea soon.

      Take care


  3. Denyse, You’ve got tremendous strength, especially mental strength, and amazing support from your family and health care team. Thank you for sharing your Q&As with #weekendcoffeeshare.

    • Thanks Natalie. Life’s big challenges are mentally won aren’t they?

      I never saw myself as a warrior because I don’t like the notion that some people who ‘battle’ cancer to the best of their ability still succumb…but yes, lifting my mental game over and over has indeed left me with resilience and capabilities I have kept.

      I sure do have the best support and here on the blog is an important part of that too.


  4. Hi Denyse, you are indeed a woman of great courage! Not everyone can help others by sharing their story and your role of Ambassador is an amazing way to do just that. As I mentioned before, my ward has been doing a step challenge this month – we have raised over $700 to donate to Head and Neck Cancer Research! We had a lot of fun, it was great for staff morale and we all benefitted health wise with the extra walking. One of my colleagues has found a new love of walking so she can now get a lot of health benefits from it (she also lost 40kg and needs to lose a little bit more so it will get her over the weight loss plateau as well).
    I too find I still need my visits to the psychologist even though I’m over my health hurdles. They are helping me to readjust to working again. Take care, and keep doing what you’re doing as it is awesome, Christina

    • Oh that is awesome news about the donation. Thank you. A team effort there for sure.

      I also hope that if the Head and Neck Cancer Australia website is found to be useful to your patients and families, you can ask for their brochures. They are free. However, it’s one of the ways in which the funds we raise for the Soup for the Soul are distributed.

      Every cancer deserves not only better awareness but more funding!!

      Your kind words are always appreciated.


  5. Hi Denyse,
    This is so eye-opening. You seem to have had a great medical team. When we were loosing out mom, I was so angry at her cancer doctor that I wanted to fire him but mom, who could not bear stress ot tension asked me not to, but he was terrible left her hopeless right out of the gate.
    Well fought ad well written my friend. Thanks

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Gary.

      How awful for you watching on as your mother was under the “care” of this doctor.

      My parents were/are (Dad is still around) of the generation that the doctors know best, but we always ask questions.

      Sadly for some, this is not the best path for our loved ones.

      Thinking of you.