Published on 01 November 2019
When Trish Hatton noticed raised white patches in her mouth, several months after having her wisdom tooth removed in hospital, she assumed it was related.
But in fact it was the first signs of mouth cancer – and the start of a journey that would lead to a 14-hour operation where surgeons removed part of her jaw and used a bone in her leg to create a new one.
Trish, from Tankerton, is speaking out for Mouth Cancer Action Month in November, to raise awareness and to thank the team who saved her life.
The 70-year-old grandmother of three said: “I have had the most amazing treatment – from the surgeons, my specialist cancer nurse, and my speech therapist, but also from the whole NHS team.
“The people behind the scenes making appointments, performing diagnostic tests, cooking food; they are all part of a huge jigsaw and I am in awe of how it fits together.
“Thanks to their skill and care I have had another two and a half years watching my grandchildren in their formative years. They change so much and to be able to witness that has been brilliant.”
Trish’s problems started in March 2017 and she initially consulted her local dentist, who wasn’t sure what was wrong.
Two months later, after the white patches spread and started bleeding and she began to be in pain, she contacted the number on her hospital discharge letter from her wisdom tooth removal and spoke to a dental nurse she credits with saving her life.
Trish said: “I explained it all to her and she had a word with the dentist who did the extraction and thank goodness she did – she probably saved my life.”
The hospital dentist agreed to take a quick look the following day, but at the appointment immediately realised the issue was nothing to do with the wisdom tooth operation.
Trish said: “He took one look in my mouth and asked if anyone had come with me.
“He said it looked very serious, and he did a biopsy immediately then sent me for blood tests and an x-ray.
“I saw the head and neck consultant a week and a half later and he confirmed it was cancer, not only in the flesh in my mouth but also in the bone.”
The consultant explained the surgery to Trish and her husband Mike.
She said: “We thought I would be pencilled in a few months later, but when he told us it would take place in two weeks, we realised how serious it was.
“Suddenly we had two weeks to organise our lives to cope with this. I thought I wasn’t going to survive the operation. I re-wrote my will, planned my funeral, and trained someone else to do my job.
“We had to break it to our two children, and decide what to tell the grandchildren, aged 12, nine and six, and sort everything out at home; complete admin such as cards, letters and a tax return, and I managed to finish decorating parts of the house I had already started. I also had to attend 12 appointments over the three hospital sites before the operation.”
The medical team at William Harvey Hospital spent 14 hours creating a new jaw for Trish using the fibula bone and flesh from her leg. She also needed a skin graft using skin from her stomach to close the wound on her leg.
After two days in high dependency, she was moved to Rotary Ward to begin her recovery.
Trish said: “I couldn’t eat or drink anything for quite a while. The staff were fabulous and, when I was able to eat again, they brought me pureed food which was laid out to look like proper food – pureed peas were in little pea shapes, and fish was arranged to look like it had scales.
“Someone had taken the time to make it look like food and it really helped.”
Her treatment did not end when she was discharged – Trish needed six weeks of radiotherapy, which brought its own challenges.
She said: “You have to wear a mask that is made from a mould of your face. This is clamped over you onto the bed whenever you have the treatment.
“You can’t open or close your eyes because your eyelashes get in the way, it’s that tight.
“I kept mine closed, so I couldn’t see the machines coming over me. I had to cope with it, I had no choice.”
Trish is now officially cancer-free, but has regular check-ups which she says make her feel less nervous of any recurrence of the mouth cancer going unnoticed.
She said: “I feel so well looked-after; they really are a fantastic team.
“To begin with I had a guilt complex about how much my treatment must have cost, but when I mentioned that to the consultant he said it was actually really important to do big operations like this to keep their skills up, and so that they can train the next generation of surgeons.
“I owe a big debt of gratitude to all the many people who have been involved in my treatment, some of them behind the scenes who I have never even met."