Health: Battling to overcome head and neck cancer challenges ahead of Christmas in Leeds

Jennifer Carne, Macmillan speech and language therapist, pulling a cracker with former cancer patient Chris Massey at the Leeds City College festive meal. Picture by James Hardisty.
Jennifer Carne, Macmillan speech and language therapist, pulling a cracker with former cancer patient Chris Massey at the Leeds City College festive meal. Picture by James Hardisty.
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Sitting around the dinner table for some festive fare is something most of us take for granted at Christmas.

But for the likes of Chris Massey, who is in remission from cancer of the throat and neck, enjoying a social meal is something that is not so simple any more.

Former patients Stephen Turner and Susan Hamer-Bloom with head chef Anton Scoones holding a first course of seafood terrine at the Leeds City College meal. Picture by James Hardisty.

Former patients Stephen Turner and Susan Hamer-Bloom with head chef Anton Scoones holding a first course of seafood terrine at the Leeds City College meal. Picture by James Hardisty.

After receiving the dreaded diagnosis in April, the 54-year-old Beeston resident, who had a liver transplant less than a year earlier, was told he would face chemotherapy and radiotherapy to tackle a cancerous lump on his neck.

Fortunately the treatment, which required him to have all of his teeth removed, worked but temporarily left him unable to swallow or taste.

As the stitches in his mouth healed, Chris was fed through a tube and was later rehabilitated to the point he could eat soft or pureed foods like mashed potato and mushy peas.

“I’ve only just got false teeth so I’m trying to get used to eating stuff,” he said. “The treatment also affected my taste. I couldn’t tell the difference between water and pop, everything just tasted horrible.”

Thankfully Chris’ taste has returned along with his ability to swallow, although many in his position are not so lucky and face a permanent pureed diet or tube feeding.

Chris is one of 360 patients referred to the Macmillan Head and Neck Rehabilitation team from Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust since it launched in October 2013.

The multidisciplinary team offers a seven-week rehabilitation programme for patients called Facing Forward to help and educate them about their recovery while helping them interact with other patients.

Around 15 recovering head and neck cancer patients were invited to a festive meal, featuring an inclusive menu specially designed by Leeds City College, by the team last week.

Chris, who attended the event, said: “There aren’t enough positive words I can say about the head and neck team. I feel very lucky.”

Dishes like seafood terrine, soft vegetables and Christmas pudding mouse were laid on for patients to show that they can still enjoy Christmas.

Jennifer Carne, the head and neck team’s speech and language therapist, said: “People can feel embarrassed about the way they eat and drink now, so that’s why we wanted a supportive event.

“A lot of these people have been through horrendous ordeals with the treatment and afterwards. I guess part of our educational group is about chatting to each other and giving each other that motivation, reassurance and encouragement.”

She added that she hoped the meal would help patients “overcome obstacles” and feel more at ease eating in public.

Charity’s head and neck cancer support aim

The Macmillan Cancer Support charity is working to improve the lives of people recovering from head and neck cancer.

The charity’s Facing Forward programme for patients has been put into action by the Macmillan Head and Neck Rehabilitation team at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust (LTH) through a pilot that started in 2013.

The team is to become part of LTH long term and offers free support to patients at all stages of recovery. Visit macmillan.org.uk.

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