Saturday 31st July 2021

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.

Denyse.

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 denysewhelan.com.au – All rights reserved.

 

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Women Of Courage Series. #53. Yvonne McClaren. 71/2020.

Women Of Courage Series. #53. Yvonne McClaren. 71/2020. 

A series of blog posts on Denyse Whelan Blogs to be found here from mid-May 2019: Wednesdays: each week until the series concludes in 2020.

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.

Whilst I have not ‘met’ today’s Woman of Courage in real life, as they say, we have most certainly connected by the common (and not ever-welcomed) diagnosis of Head and Neck Cancer. Yvonne, who is 54, has shared her story below via the responses to the questions but to know even more about her and how she is facing life full-on these days, check out her links! Recently she appeared  too as part of the Beyond Five live video segment relating to food preparation and eating for those affected by head and neck cancer, particularly as in Yvonne’s case and others, relating to swallowing.

Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty in swallowing. This includes problems with sucking, swallowing, drinking, chewing, eating, dribbling saliva, closing lips, or when food or drink goes down the wrong way.

The link to the video is at the end of this post.

Thank you Yvonne for sharing.

 

 What have you faced in your life where you have had to be courageous?

There are a few times in my life where I have had to reinvent myself both professionally and personally. I think my latest challenge with finding a large tumour on my left tonsil has been my greatest challenge.

There have been other life-threatening situations – involving motorbikes, but this was really out of my control. Once diagnosed I responded with ‘silence’ – I went into myself I realise now.

It was a difficult time as I had relocated countries, left my full time job to start a new life and career and had my heart broken all in the space of 8 weeks, then a cancer diagnosis.

Suffice to say, I had little time to grieve anything, it was get on with it and start the treatment. Everything was put on hold in terms of dealing with loss of income, loss of love and in some respects the loss of my beloved father a year earlier.

It’s only now, 18 months after diagnosis, that I am starting to mentally deal with some of the other issues going on in my life at that time.

 

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

I had no time to consider anyone or anything else really.

I was on my own and thankfully had my mum still in her own home where I could live whilst going through the treatment.

I had had a sore throat for many, many months and jokingly said to a friend “I think it’s cancer” not really believing it, turns out 6 months later I was right.

How has it changed me?

I listen to my body really closely now, I use to before, but this has made me very aware of what thoughts I have running through my head, what niggle is going on and why… it also made me realise that every second you spend worrying about some insignificant thing is wasted time.

Get on and do it and do it now. Whatever it takes.

I lost the last five kilos I couldn’t budge and then some, so that was great for me, not an ideal weight loss programme but it started me back on my fitness journey 15 kilos lighter.

I now have to learn how to eat again and for a foodie I have found this the most distressing, depressing and difficult side effect.

Food was/ is my world and I have had to retrain and rethink what that looks like now. It also made my fledgling idea about teaching culinary pursuits in a foreign country come to fruition.

 

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

 

You always have choices, for me, I sat with it and the implications and thought about the worst-case scenario.

I was also told by a well meaning nurse that my cancer treatment had not worked and there was nothing more they could do for me. That sort of puts things in a very stark perspective, it’s humbling and it’s frightening.

It’s also incredibly motivating when I discovered that was not the case.

Learning to manage emotions is something you also can practise and become the master.

I then figured well if that’s as bad as it gets (death / inability to function normally/ disability) then make the most of what you have now.

I also discovered that you lose “friends” along the way, whether they can’t handle the new you, or who you have become or are becoming is too hard for them I don’t know.

I have had to make an entirely new circle of friends and have reacquainted myself with ones I have not had much to do with for years.

What I can say is, you are innately very strong you just don’t know it yet.

 

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

Yes, I am doing things now that are very much out of my comfort zone, although some would say riding through Vietnam and Laos on the back of a motorbike during a typhoon is getting out of my comfort zone too, but this disease and its side affects have made me realise that everyone has a message and a story.

In many ways this disease has focused my life’s purpose, I had all the scaffolding ready but now I have the ‘reason’ to hoist the flag on top of the scaffolding.

 

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

Don’t spend time worrying about things that might happen, focus on the now and take it one step at a time.

There is literally  someone else worse off than you, I’d hate to be that person by the way whoever they are, I guess it’s all relative.

 

Do add anything else that you think would help others who read your post. 

 

My job as I see it now is to spend my time doing what I love, what I love is cooking and if I can help others with eating difficulties as a result of HNC and its treatment then that’s what I am going to do.

I come from a family of teachers so it is not surprising to me that ultimately, I want to use my skills to help others.

I have set up The Food Manifesto and Soup hug as a way to bring a community together that suffer from this debilitating side effect.

I like to think of myself as the food curator for dysphagia, the link between your dietitian and your kitchen.

 

What a story of resurgence here. I can say that because I did not know Yvonne until she found the friendly facebook group for Head and Neck Cancer Patients, Carers, Professionals and Families. It is here, too, where I ‘met’ another Woman of Courage Maureen whose story is here.   There is another Woman of Courage called Tara Flannery who shared about her head and neck cancer here.

And this Woman of Courage shared her story. She is Julie McCrossin AM, who is also a Community Ambassador for Beyond Five and is part of the webinar Yvonne appeared in below.

 

Thank you again Yvonne. I am so pleased you are doing all you can to be well and help others too.

This is the penultimate post in the Women of Courage series.

Denyse.

Beyond Five, where I am a Community Ambassador released this video live just before World Head and Neck Cancer Day 2020.

Please take some time to view…and see what Yvonne shares from her kitchen and share with others who may benefit.

Thank you.

Social Media Links for Yvonne:

Blog/Website:  www.thefoodmanifesto.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/McclarenYvonne

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/sustainablefoodandtravel/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/the_food_manifesto/?hl=en

 

On Thursdays I link here for Lovin Life with Leanne and friends.

Copyright © 2020 denysewhelan.com.au – All rights reserved.

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