For Denyse Whelan, speaking up about some unusual mouth pains and putting her trust in the experts at Westmead Hospital in Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) was lifechanging.
It’s nearly six years since some follow-up appointments turned her world upside down, and yet, Denyse is still such a positive force and passionate advocate for head and neck cancer patients.
“We were living on the Central Coast in May 2017 when, after some investigations at my insistence when my very sore mouth did not get better, my dentist referred me urgently to the local oral surgeon. They did a biopsy and she told me three days later that I had ‘squamous cell carcinoma’ in my upper gums,” Denyse said.
“I was soon told that all of my upper mouth would be removed surgically (with all the cancer too), and a new upper mouth would be constructed, made from parts of my leg.
“In the course of two weeks, I learned I had cancer (and a rare one at that), that I would have half my mouth removed, and that it could be up to nine months before I could eat again. I had to take in a lot of information about my massive surgery to come and over time, I knew, as did my husband, that we had an amazing team on my side, who were going to do all they could for me.”
Denyse’s medical team included a very special prosthodontist from Oral Restorative Sciences at Westmead Hospital: Dr Suhas Deshpande, and a nurse from his team named Ofelia.
After lots of preparation from a network of experts from Westmead Hospital and Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, including extensive CT planning and measurements for parts of Denyse’s ‘new mouth’ that were being made overseas, Denyse had her first surgery in July 2017.
“It took two theatres and around 25 people for my surgery. And a very important and familiar face looked over as I was wheeled into theatre – Dr Deshpande,” she said.
This familiar face and his team are a big part of Denyse’s ongoing care, and she says that the relationships she’s formed with these Westmead Hospital staff have made her experience in difficult circumstances much more comfortable.
“Over the time, I have met and chatted with many of the staff at Westmead Hospital in the Oral Restorative Sciences department. I want to say how welcoming and inclusive the atmosphere is there. I have watched many people nervously awaiting appointments for other matters and each person is treated kindly and with respect.
“My care was one hundred percent patient-centred. Westmead Hospital has wonderful people and is a caring place, and I always felt my best health interests were the number one priority.
“I have driven back and forth to Westmead Hospital from the Central Coast over 47 times. My cancer has not returned but my treatment and checks for how my upper prosthesis is going are for the rest of my life, so Westmead Hospital is part of my life moving forward.”
Denyse is cancer free, and had her most recent check-in with her head and neck cancer surgeon in October last year.
As a retired school principal, Denyse is currently preparing for a move back to the Hills District to be closer to family.
She and her husband also recently celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary, and she credits him as a huge support during her health journey.
Denyse also pours a lot of time and energy running her blog, where she candidly shares her story in the beautiful, supportive network she has created.