A story of persistence to receive a diagnosis.
In November 2018, Maryanne Hewitt from Newcastle in NSW started getting a scratchy throat. It would often last a couple of days, but did not seem too serious or concerning. It was still occurring in February 2019, and more frequently than before, so she decided to visit her GP.
It was thought she just had Strep Throat and was placed on a course of antibiotics. One month later her throat was still sore, and she noticed a lump on the side of her neck. Back to the doctor who advised she had developed tonsillitis and had a swollen lymph gland. Another course of antibiotics.
“I was visiting my doctor every couple of weeks, every time feeling unwell as my throat was now very sore and the lump getting bigger, each time I was prescribed more antibiotics,” said Maryanne.
With the pain persistent and increasing, Maryanne was eventually referred to an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) Surgeon to have her tonsils removed. The earliest appointment she could get was mid December 2019: thirteen months after her symptoms first appeared. Within ten minutes of meeting with the ENT specialist he told Maryanne he was 90% sure she had tonsil cancer, and so her head and neck cancer journey began.
One of the first obstacles people with symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer face is its misdiagnosis. Head and neck cancers are a sinister disease – they produce signs and symptoms which mimic many benign diseases – a sore throat, mild earache, tongue ulcer or neck lump. There is, however, no screening test for head and neck cancer so patients and head and neck cancer clinicians rely heavily on GPs and Dentists to catch these cancers early. We know that the earlier we catch these cancers, the better people do.
The weeks following Maryanne’s diagnosis were a flurry of tests and medical appointments. This can often be a confusing and anxious time as preparations for treatment move very quickly. Maryanne had a radiation therapy immobilisation mask made, a feeding tube inserted and all of her back teeth removed before radiation therapy treatment began in February 2020 at the Calvary Mater Hospital in Newcastle.
“My medical team including Dr Mahesh Kumar and my favourite nurse, Dixie, were amazing at explaining the complete treatment process to me, what to expect and how it would affect me.”
Maryanne’s treatment consisted of 35 radiation treatments and three rounds of chemotherapy administered overnight in hospital and finished on 27 March 2020.
“I coped well with the treatment, only struggling with the last few weeks. Post treatment was very difficult though, I simply didn’t think I would feel so weak and drained. I wasn’t able to eat at all, I was on the feeding tube for about 18 hours a day,” said Maryanne
Maryanne’s friends and family were incredibly supportive during her treatment and recovery. Her son Max regularly drove her to her appointments and treatment. And with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic her husband Mark, who usually worked and lived in Sydney during the week, was now home with her.
“He was looking after me which included preparing my medications and bandaging my neck everyday as well as doing everything in the house and working. He never once complained, he just got on with things.”
At the beginning of her recovery Maryanne was confined to bed for most of this time, and suffered nausea and vomiting but as time passed she began walking first around her backyard, and then around the block with her son.
“I am now walking an hour or two everyday, I feel very blessed to live only 5 minutes from the beach.”
Maryanne is still dealing with the side effects of Head and Neck Cancer. She has significant permanent hearing loss and must now use hearing aids. A constant dry mouth can make eating and swallowing difficult and limits her diet and vestibular dysfunction which means the nerves between her ears and brain have been permanently damaged creating balance issues.
“My cognitive function is also slower and I have developed a stutter. My lips often crack and I have sores inside my nose on a regular basis. I have significant scarring on my neck which is very tender and quite visible.”
Maryanne was working as an Office Manager for an accounting firm before her cancer journey, which she really enjoyed. They chose to terminate her employment a couple of months after her treatment finished.
“I was terminated by letter, no support was given to me. I was left devastated by this decision.”
Not one to stay down for too long, however, Maryanne has very recently applied for a new job, and is looking forward to getting on with her life. She also has a new mission to help increase the awareness of the possible signs of tonsil cancer.
“My advice to any person newly diagnosed with Head and Neck cancer is to be kind to yourself and if you want to cry...let it out. Always take a support person with you to all medical appointments and treatments to hold your hand and to help you understand all that is being explained to you.”
Thank you Maryanne for sharing your story.
To learn more about Oropharyngeal Cancer click here.
Your donation can help change lives