Before Christmas 2013, Mairead, then aged 59, was experiencing a number of unusual symptoms. “Prior to my diagnosis my general health had been excellent. The only time I had ever been in hospital was when my two boys were born – I had been a smoker, but had given up many years previously,” explains Mairead. 

“Despite the presence of mouth ulcers, regular checkups with my dentist did not identify the problem. Prior to December my symptoms included a persistent, niggling cough and sore ear. Over that Christmas, things got much worse—the ulcer had turned into a sort of boil on my tongue. It wasn’t until the 4th of January 2014 that I attended a consultant, who suspected cancer and referred me to a specialist hospital unit. After a biopsy, mouth cancer was confirmed.” 

“In hindsight—the persistent ulcer, the pain, how tired and weak I felt— I was displaying all the typical symptoms of head and neck cancer, but because I didn’t know what these were, I wasn’t looking out for them. That’s why raising awareness is so important. It’s why I’m happy to share the story of my experience in the hope that anybody reading this will get themselves checked if they notice anything unusual in their mouth or around their neck for a period longer than three weeks”.  

 “After surgery which resulted in the loss of some of my tongue, I was booked in for six weeks of radiotherapy treatment. For the first four weeks, it was hard, but I managed. After that, for the final two weeks, it got much harder. The sessions were difficult“, says Mairead, who explains that initially she coped well, but after a while the treatments took their toll.

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"I found the whole process both physically draining and all-consuming. It felt like my life revolved around the hospital."

“Throughout, a loss of appetite led to significant weight loss and my skin was burning. I found the whole process both physically draining and all-consuming. It felt like my life revolved around the hospital.  At this stage my two sons were reared, and we lived close to the hospital, so I can understand how difficult the many hospital appointments must be for people with young children or who have to travel long distances.” 

Following her initial full recovery and return to work,  in January 2015, a further lump was found, this time on the side of her neck. “After a second surgery and associated treatment, my speech was much worse, and everything became a bit more difficult. It was at that point that I decided to give up work and take early retirement.” 

With the support of speech therapists and dieticians, as well as ongoing support from her medical team, Mairead explains she adapted her lifestyle rather than change it. “I can’t eat red meat anymore, for example, but I have a more fish-based diet now, which is no problem for me now living on the coast in West Cork!” 

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"It can be a very lonely place going through cancer treatment but events of this type give a sense of community and support.”

In early 2020, before the Covid pandemic took hold, Mairead and her husband, Ray, went on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to South Africa, something they had always wanted to do. “It was an amazing trip, and I’m so delighted we got to experience that before the lockdowns and restrictions started. By that September, at my quarterly routine dental check-up, my new dentist spotted another problem in my mouth and after being sent for a further biopsy, I found out my cancer was back.” 

This was a really challenging time for Mairead and her family, with Covid-19 and the pandemic restrictions complicating matters. “After that operation, I had to be fed through a tube for a while and I needed intensive support from a speech and language therapist. It was really difficult; it doesn’t get any easier going through it multiple times.” 

Now, thankfully, Mairead has been given the all clear following a third surgery. She now says she’s looking forward to an event that will take place in Cork in November, where Head and Neck Cancer survivors and people currently going through their cancer diagnosis can come together to share their stories.  

“Pre-covid, we used to meet up more often as a community and we got great strength from hearing from other people, hearing their challenges and how they came through them. It can be a very lonely place going through cancer treatment but events of this type give a sense of community and support.” 

Now happily retired at 69, Mairead says she enjoys walking, she loves to read and travel, is a member of her local historical society and recently took up kayaking!

“Life is wonderful, spending happy times with my husband and sons. I have two wonderful grandchildren and a daughter-in-law, who is a very great friend.”

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