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Ross Widger

Ross was diagnosed with stage 4 base of tongue squamous cell cancer.

Ross Widger was an Oarsman in his youth. He had to train hard, and of course liked to win. But if he did not, he knew the answer was to knuckle down and train harder.

Twelve years ago when he was diagnosed with stage 4 base of tongue squamous cell cancer, he knew this was going to be a very tough race to win. Maybe his toughest yet.

“My head was spinning when I was at the Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists. But they explained what to expect from my treatment, repeating most things three times!”

Ross was referred to the Royal Adelaide Hospital for urgent treatment, and a month later had surgery on his neck and the base of his tongue. The affected glands on one side were removed, the sentinel lymph nodes on the other side were clear. A muscle and a nerve in his neck compromised by the tumor were removed and he was told he would lose some use of his arm.

“The staples on my neck just about went from ear to ear and my tongue was very painful for two weeks but I recovered fairly quickly.” Ross hated his nasal food tube, so was relieved when he could start eating pureed food. A few weeks later he had a stomach peg fitted and began chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

“I remember the nurse at the oncologists telling me what to expect. She started off with ‘you’re going to feel like crap during this treatment’. I smiled, she continued her explanation and then repeated again ‘you’re going to feel like crap during this treatment’. She gave a further explanation, summarizing with ‘by the way did I tell you you’re going to feel like crap during this treatment?’ By this time I’d got the message, I had a good laugh with her.”

Three chemotherapy treatments in conjunction with thirty or so radiotherapy sessions proved she was right. “ Years later I called it the sledgehammer treatment”. Six weeks later Ross had a dry mouth, all food tasted like cardboard, and his ears were overly sensitive.

“I remember coming down the stairs in the old Royal Adelaide Hospital with a tear running down my face, thinking, thank god that’s over, now it’s time to get on with life and put all this behind me. In my mind I was cured.”

Ross now is faced with coping with the side effects of treatment. “I have a dry mouth, I need a water bottle with me all the time, I can’t talk for more than a minute without needing a sip of water.” He had trouble lifting his left arm and his head was heavy and tight due to the neck muscles and nerve being removed. His feet became very sensitive, even walking on grass barefoot could be unpleasant
But his ears were back to normal now, and he could swallow most food, except for bread, biscuits, nuts and most meat. “Taste came back, except for red wine, even now it’s the only thing that I don’t like. The bonus is that I’m still here and I don’t have to shave much!”.

“I’m getting on with life, finding a new normal. My outlook is, that was then and this is now”.

Ross took extra care of his teeth, getting regular praise from his dental hygienist, but eight years on something just didn’t feel right. He kept getting infections, and sure enough the mandible had osteo-necrosis. After regular sessions in a hyperbaric chamber to stimulate bone growth and having a tooth removed, he experiences some improvement, but the infections continue. Ross needs a new mandible.

The first eleven hour fibula free flap reconstruction fails, but the second, which lasted sixteen hours, is a success. Ross is back in an all too familiar recovery role, and has a tracheostomy and a nasal food tube. They are removed five weeks later to his delight, but he now has trouble swallowing again, and there is swelling and a skin graft on his neck.

“When I went out people would stare at the swelling and graft on my neck so I decided to name the graft ‘Percy’ and got my wife Iris to draw a ‘smiley face’ in texta on ‘Percy’, what a difference that made, people smiled instead of stared.”

This recovery took six months, and Percy cleared up after twelve. Apart from a two procedures to improve swallowing he again had to find his new normal. He still has issues with his arm and tightness around his neck. His feet are still sensitive, and he must be careful not to bite his bottom lip. He has a partial denture and produces a good amount of saliva, so eating and swallowing are greatly improved, and in spite of some residual tightness around his fibulas, enjoys bush walking regularly.

During his journey he found all of his medical team at the Royal Adelaide Hospital to be fantastic, from the surgeons to the cleaners, for him even a smile can help a lot. “Support from partners, family, friends, and the nurses and doctors is very important,” his wife was with him every day and was his foundation.

“I’m lucky to have an attitude that can usually see a little humor when things are crappy, it’s probably a good coping mechanism. Life may not be perfect, but it’s not terrible and my new normal is much better than the alternative!”

I reckon you won that race Ross. Keep paddling and thank you for sharing your story.

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