My jaw was rebuilt with bone from my hips
When a rare cancer wrapped round one of her teeth Chris Palfrey, 39, from Witney, Oxfordshire, needed drastic surgery – which helped her find love again
My job as a compliance specialist in an IT firm was busy, but in the summer of 2012 I started to feel so exhausted I was spending weekends in bed. Then six months later I got toothache and a nasty cold too.
I went to the dentist who did X-rays and a scan and when he found something that could be a cyst he referred me to a consultant in London.
A biopsy confirmed my worst fears – it was a tumour. I was sent straight to see Professor Mark Mcgurk at London Bridge Hospital and was told I had adenoid cystic carcinoma, cancer of the salivary glands.
“It’s exceptionally rare in someone your age and who is as healthy and athletic as you,” he said, then added: “It’s not hereditary, not caused by your lifestyle. There’s nothing you could have done to prevent it.”
I was a slim, fit and healthy married mum. I never smoked and exercised five times a week. At 5ft 1in I weighed 8st 12lb.
The tumour, 4.8cm in diameter, had wrapped itself around my lower left wisdom tooth.
The professor explained I needed an operation to remove some teeth and part of my jaw bone, which filled me with horror. But they were going to rebuild my jaw by taking bone from my hip.
My first reaction was would I still be able to run? Thankfully I could and, despite all the trauma that was to come, I can still do 10k in 53 minutes. My 12-hour operation at London Bridge Hospital came within a couple of weeks of diagnosis.
When I woke the following day my mouth felt numb. I tried to talk but it wouldn’t move properly and I sounded like a baby.
The operation had taken longer than expected because the cancer had spread to my tongue and they’d had to remove part of it.
I struggled to talk and eat – and even had to learn to walk again.
My husband Steve was a brilliant support but it was a week before I let my daughter Victoria, then 12, see me in hospital.
When she walked in I cried for the first time. My face still looked a mess – a scar running from my ear to beneath my chin.
The skin was black and blue, I couldn’t talk, was on two drips and being tube fed. But seeing Victoria gave me a boost and soon the physio had me using a Zimmer frame. Just two weeks after the op I came home in a wheelchair.
My mouth was so delicate I could only tolerate jelly and vitamin milkshakes, and I had to use a bite machine every day to open my jaw.
I had daily radiotherapy for six weeks, was on painkillers for three months and used crutches for six months. But I carried on working – determined to control at least one thing in my life. I had regular scans and in 2015 I had an operation to remove two tumours from my left lung.
Thankfully they weren’t active but it still meant that my illness had progressed to secondary cancer.
In July 2015 I separated from Steve as we had grown apart. By then the muscles in my face had been destroyed by the radiotherapy so the left side was hollow-looking and my speech was very slurred. Plus, I had a huge scar along my jaw which all made me extremely self-conscious.
So I couldn’t believe it when a work friend, Barry, asked me out for a drink. “Are you crazy?” I asked him. “I’ve got cancer!” But he wasn’t put off and we’ve been together 18 months. And while kissing is limited these days, Barry only pays me compliments!
The cancer has come back in my right lung and my prognosis is officially about five years. But I’m very grateful such pioneering surgery has given me more time to be with Victoria... and for helping me find love again.
COURAGE Chris in hospital after surgeons rebuilt her jaw MY LOVES With daughter Victoria, before surgery, and new fella Barry
REBUILT Victoria’s jaw surgery