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'Rehab oncology nurses have seen me through some dark days'

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After radiotherapy left her with severe swallowing difficulties, Mary found herself reliant on the after-care oncology team

Four years ago I was diagnosed with a squamous cell neck cancer and underwent surgery, chemo and radiotherapy treatment at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford – before finally getting the good news that I was in remission just before Christmas 2013.

The surgeons, radiologists and chemo staff were fantastic, but I want to highlight the often unsung work of the after-care oncology nurses, dieticians and speech therapists, who are doing a wonderful job in helping me come to terms with the life-changing after-effects of my treatment.

Radiotherapy zapped my saliva glands and taste buds and left me with severe swallowing difficulties.

“I want to highlight the often unsung work of the after-care oncology nurses”

This only really hit home when I tried to eat my Christmas turkey that year with all the trimmings. Complete disaster! Everything just got stuck. I ended up mashing up my roasties and peas and drowning them in gravy, just to be able to swallow them. And even that was a massive effort.

The shock that my swallowing ability was so badly compromised hit me hard and I became depressed about it. The only ‘safe’ things I could eat were soups, custards, yoghurts, ice-cream and high-calorie protein drinks. For a long time, I became reliant on the latter as I struggled to find the strength and energy to try out different solid foods.

This is when the oncology head and neck nursing team stepped in. They have given me un-ending support, not just practically, but emotionally, too.

“I can call them anytime during the day or night if I have a problem”

Their care, concern and understanding of the struggles faced by head and neck cancer patients is amazing. My particular team, which comprises of an oncology nurse, speech therapist and dietician, are there every time I go for my three-monthly check-up – and I can call them anytime during the day or night if I have a problem.

We are all on first-name terms now, and I consider them my friends.

People may think that when your cancer treatment ends successfully, you automatically return to ‘normal’. But many don’t realise that long-term rehabilitation and support is vital for many patients.

Their practical advice on things to eat – or avoid – along with the chance to talk through new or on-going situations, has been invaluable. I honestly don’t think I would have survived this long without their help. (I would probably have wasted away!)

They have even helped me to become actively involved with a fairly new support charity, Second Chancers, for head and neck cancer patients and their families. We all meet up regularly, to talk about our experiences and swap tips and information.

“I will never to able to eat a ‘normal’ diet again and I see this as a kind of bereavement”

It is four years since my cancer diagnosis and the disease has been life-changing. I will never to able to eat a ‘normal’ diet again and I see this as a kind of bereavement.

The on-going support given by the rehab oncology staff has seen me through some dark days and has given me the strength to know my condition doesn’t mean my life has to be ruined by it.

So – my heartfelt thanks go out to all of you - you know who you are. My heroes!

Mary Bishop Pinn

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