Denyse Whelan has been meticulously documenting her cancer journey since she was first diagnosed in May 2017. Her initial observation was that she didn’t want to become known as a cancer blogger as “there is so much more to me than cancer.”
She soon discovered that sharing how she was feeling and what she experienced during her treatment was helpful. She says, “It was reassuring to know that everything I was dealing with was pretty normal – from the emotional highs and lows to getting to know how to navigate the hospital.”
Denyse remembers the shock in a blog post in May when the biopsy came back confirming squamous cancer cells in her top gums, “To say it was a shock was an understatement and I am still a little bit that way. I was alone at home but after a quick phone call to my husband, he was home within the hour.”
Denyse was told that she would need surgery and her doctor described what the ten to twelve-hour procedure would entail, “They would replace the inner part of my palate, my jaw at the top and my gums with skin, muscle tissue and bone from my left leg. The leg bone was to have implants put into it so that teeth could be added in the future once it was in my mouth. I had quite a meltdown at the thought of the hours under anaesthetic as I understood that this was a big operation.”
This is when Denyse reached out to share her news with her online community. “The support was amazing. I made it public on Facebook and Twitter because I needed the love and support to surround me as I went into something I had not predicted, ever. Yet, so many of us affected by cancer think ‘why me?’, whereas my attitude was mostly ‘why not me?’. But on some days I admit the going was hard and I did ask why me?”
To cope with the intense emotions, Denyse went about her days with as much normality as possible. “I was making art, taking photos, blogging, chatting online, reading, walking, tending the garden, talking to my lovely husband, meditating and being mindful to eat as well as I could.” These were tools she had already integrated into her life to deal with anxiety and change before the cancer came along. “So, they became the tools for managing my thoughts about cancer too.”
Denyse describes her low points with raw honesty. In a blog post on 20 June she wrote, “I have had some pretty horrid days and nights where I have become fearful, panicked and so vulnerable I wanted to go into a corner and hide and never come out. I am scared right now.”
“I am worried about losing what I valued: my mouth where I speak, eat, share my emotions and smile. It has been days of crying uncontrollably, being held until I calm down (thank you dear B) and taking some Valium (which I don’t really want to) and letting out the fears in words between the sobs.”
She kept an account of the days leading up to and including her surgery and recovery at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse cancer hospital in Sydney. In particular she records in beautiful and moving detail all the big and small things she is grateful for as she goes through the process: from the staff at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and the support of her online community to “stopping caring about modesty”, her husband and her eventual discharge. See parts one, two and three on the blog.
The road to recovery presented Denyse with some big emotional hurdles to get over and, while she noted, “I know things will get better over time,” it wasn’t an easy part of the journey.
However, in a blog post on 22 August, Denyse recognised that she had turned a corner. “I am so fortunate to have recovered well from a most major and complex surgery where part of my leg was made to fit into my upper part of my mouth to give me, over time, teeth and gums and a SMILE to be proud of. And I have the best support person in the world…who is also incredibly patient with this ex-patient…and that of course is my husband”
“I am, as they say, #blessed!”
Denyse’s journey is not over yet. She had further surgery and is getting used to a new life where walking, eating, smiling and talking are challenging for a while. So, you can be sure she has been continuing to record it. You can follow Denyse’s blog at http://www.denysewhelan.com.au/denyse-and-her-cancer-story/
You can also follow her progress on Instagram where she posts a selfie every day no matter what her mouth and face looks like. Denyse says this has been an enormously supportive space and helped her realise that the small act of dressing well and going out for a coffee helped her emotionally: @denysewhelan #everydaystyle
Ultimately, Denyse has a very positive take on the experience. “I have said, more than a few times, that this cancer diagnosis (and subsequent surgeries and treatments) has helped me get back a Denyse I really like being and a person who is more outgoing (as I used to be many years ago) and one who is more loving and giving to others.”
Knowing that others have been through similar experiences or that the support of a wider community is behind you can be incredibly helpful when living with cancer. Visit the Beyond Five website to find support networks available for head and neck cancer patients around Australia.