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Dr Usha Salagame

Each one of us is inherently strong; sometimes we just need to be reminded.

Dr Usha Salagame knows about cancer. As a cancer researcher, she has worked for the University of Sydney, the Cancer Council NSW and the Cancer Institute of NSW, as well as Cancer Australia. She mostly worked in the area of breast cancer, and was halfway through her PhD when diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland (parotid) in 2012.

She had a lump above her right jaw which, although painless to begin with, became increasingly uncomfortable. The doctors originally thought it was a joint disorder, so when they told her it was cancer she was in shock.

“I thought this cannot be happening to me. It is such a rare cancer and I had none of the risk factors.”

Usha does not smoke, is a vegetarian and maintains a moderate lifestyle. Though relieved to find that the tumour wasn’t metastatic, she was still very fearful and confused about how to handle the diagnosis, particularly when it came to her family.

It was especially difficult to share the news with her children. The family had recently lost a close friend to cancer, a young woman with children of similar age. “My kids were old enough to understand what it meant. No one really is old enough or prepared to handle this kind of news.”

Usha does have a loving and supportive family, “Thankfully my siblings rallied around us and came to Australia in turns to support me and my family. I am forever grateful to them and our friends in Sydney.”

This helped her focus on treatment and recovery. While undergoing chemoradiotherapy she could barely eat, but a few weeks after treatment she slowly regained her strength and
an air of normalcy.

Despite having lost hearing in her right ear. Usha is stoic about the physical traces left by the cancer. “Initially I thought the physical impact would be far more devastating than it has turned out to be, thanks to the excellent care at the hands of my Surgeon and his team.” The treatment has left the right side of her face weaker than the left.

Usha struggled more with the psychological fallout, “I was constantly fighting negative thoughts and fears, although people around me think I was coping very well.”

“The most surprising part is that as one moves away from diagnosis and treatment, fear gradually reduces and life returns to normal. I am trying to stick to my resolve of a calm and peaceful temperament, not trying to do a million things and to put my health and wellbeing first. But it is so easy to get caught up.”

Exercise and a change in lifestyle have become the foundation of her coping strategy, as well as surrounding herself with people who offer strength and confidence, people who believe in her ability to be healthy and cancer free.

Usha has some wise words for others going through head and neck cancer.

“Do not believe all you read on the internet, read what is relevant to your case and what you can do to help yourself.”

“Maintain a healthy lifestyle and draw strength from wherever you can, be it belief systems, philosophy, faith in medical science or most importantly other people’s success stories.”

“Do not apply other people’s struggles and lack of success with their cancer to yourself. Each disease is different just like each of our lives is different.”

Usha is living with the impact of cancer, balancing her life as a Program Manager at NSW Health, her devoted family, raising cancer awareness and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. “My life is pretty good considering what I have been through.”

“I think each one of us is inherently strong; sometimes we just need to be reminded.”

Click here to learn more about salivary gland cancer.

Thank you Usha for sharing your story.

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