Saturday 15 December 2018

'I was going island hopping in Greece when doctors told me I had a one-in-a-million cancer' - mouth cancer survivor

Roisin Whelan who, as a non-smoker and minimal drinker, was diagnosed with mouth cancer aged 19.
Roisin Whelan who, as a non-smoker and minimal drinker, was diagnosed with mouth cancer aged 19.
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

A survivor of mouth cancer has urged Irish people to be aware of the dangers posed by mouth cancer disease and to get checked out by their dentist if they have any concerns.  

Roisin Whelan, a Dublin-based psychotherapist said she was just 19 years old when she was diagnosed with nasopharynx or cancer of the back of the throat.

Three hundred cases of mouth and pharynx cancer are detected in Ireland each year. Two people die from the illness in Ireland every week. 

“When you’re 19, you only think that older people get cancer. I was really busy organising a trip that summer to go island hopping in Greece with my friends. Even when I got diagnosed I was so convinced I was going to go. Until the doctors told me differently.”

“From then on, my view on life was always different to my friends. I always had to mind myself a little bit differently, I was always a little bit more vulnerable.”

People who drink and smoke are 40 times more likely to get oral cancer. But Roisin didn’t smoke, and she drank small amounts of alcohol socially, so the diagnosis of a tumour on the nasopharynx – a cancer that affects one in a million people - was a shock.

“For about a year beforehand I was feeling lethargic, and getting bad ear infections that I couldn’t clear up. As a waitress I was struggling in the local pub to hear people’s orders, so it was causing problems that way.”

“I went to a specialist to do biopsy on the lump on the side of my neck, it was a swollen lymph gland. The issue for me was the hearing and I had a bad pain in my jaw as well.”

“They decided they’d take the whole gland out – when they took it out they realised that there was cancer there.”

“The tumour had spread. They were able to take the lump out, but the tumour had to be treated with radiation and chemotherapy.”

Dentists will soon provide free oral exams to homeless people, a high-risk group for getting mouth and pharynx cancer.

Dentists will be providing free oral exams for homeless people through the Simon Community’s network in Cork, Dublin and Galway as well as with the Peter McVerry Trust and the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin.  

Meanwhile, as today is Mouth Cancer Awareness Day,

Dr. Conor McAlister from the Irish Dental Association said: “Two people die from mouth cancer every week in Ireland with three hundred cases of mouth and pharynx cancer detected in Ireland each year.” 

“We are reminding people that they are entitled to a free oral exam once a year under the PRSI and Medical Card Schemes and we encourage everyone to use this opportunity as early detection saves lives.”

Symptoms of mouth cancer may include a sore or ulcer in the mouth that does not heal within three weeks, white or red patches inside the mouth, a lump in the mouth, or persistent sore throat or hoarseness. 

Roisin, a psychotherapist at Mindworthy, added: "I was studying for my Leaving Cert and I just knew I wasn't right.  For the next year I had a pain in my ear and my hearing was affected. Then I developed a lump in my neck. Because of my age and because I wasn't a smoker or really a drinker the doctors weren't really thinking mouth cancer. It just shows this disease can strike anyone."

"My treatment was very severe and lasted for five months. I've been in remission for 12 years now but I think the key point for anyone with concerns is to get checked by their dentist or doctor as soon as possible,” she said.

“I’ve been extremely lucky to have gone the last 13 years without any relapse. You’re never the same again. There’s always [a side effect] that happens. You never go back to normal.”

“I have no saliva, and saliva is really helpful for your teeth. I have to keep my mouth really clean with fluoride and keep my teeth healthy.”

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