It’s been 10 years since I was diagnosed with tongue cancer. A biopsy on what I thought was a harmless ulcer caused by a tooth irritation that I’d ignored for months, turned out to be a Squamous Cell Carcinoma. When you’re 22 and in your final semester of university, generally your biggest worry is about getting your assignments in on time…cancer is not what you expect to be hit with.
A week after being diagnosed, my mum and I left our home in Townsville for me to have further surgery and possible ongoing treatment in Brisbane. I think at that stage the fear of the unknown was greater than anything else, but it was all a blur and seemed to be happening so quickly. I was taken under the wing by one of the leading plastic and reconstructive head and neck surgeons in the country. I was to have a tongue reconstruction to remove any remaining cancerous tissue, and surgery to remove lymph nodes on the left side of my neck in case the cancer had spread. Before I was wheeled into surgery a few days later, my surgeon gave me a pep talk and said “Don’t worry, I will make the scars on your neck so faint that they will look like wrinkles when you get older.” I thought ‘great, she’s telling me I’m going to have a wrinkly neck’ – what she meant was I was going to live long enough to get wrinkles!
A few days after surgery, while I was trying to adjust to speaking with my ‘new’ tongue, I got the news my family and I had been hoping for – all my lymph nodes were clear of cancer, and I wouldn’t need radiation. I was done. The radiation oncologist had told me that typically all head and neck cancer patients have both surgery and radiation treatment as a rule, but given I was so young they did not want to subject me to any unnecessary radiation due to the side-effects. Knowing that I was free of cancer and all that lay ahead of me now was recovery and check-ups was the biggest relief in the world.
The months after my surgery saw me go back to uni to finish my journalism degree, land a job in broadcast journalism, meet some amazing people through CanTeen, and generally get on with life. I regained about 98% of my speech, and my surgeon had kept her word – my scars on my neck are so subtle that most people don’t notice them. At first I thought everyone was staring at them and I was self-conscious, but that was a battle in my own head I had to win.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, and it took me a very long time to come to terms with what had happened. Given it had happened so fast it often didn’t seem real. Tongue cancer typically affects people over the age of 50, so I often joked while waiting for my check-ups in a room full of people 40 years my senior that I had been given the wrong order! I got better at telling people my story, and better at dealing with the inevitable follow-up question of “oh, but you don’t smoke?!” Accepting it took some time but it was made easier with the help of my wonderful friends and family – if there is an upside to cancer it’s that it has made my relationships with people stronger and more meaningful.
Ten years on, my life has changed a lot, and as I’ve now been given the all-clear and no longer have to have yearly check-ups, cancer doesn’t play a role in my life anymore – I feel as though I can put that part of my life behind me. My scars – however minimal – will always be there, but they’re a part of who I am, and I’m a little bit proud of them.