Sally Bragg has a very different perception of life after being diagnosed with cancer of the cheek in 1998. At the time, Sally had never heard of mouth cancer. For someone who didn’t smoke, exercised regularly, had a fantastic diet, had regular dental check-ups and only enjoyed the occasional glass of wine, Sally’s experience at the age of 37 provides a harrowing reminder that mouth cancer can affect anyone.
“There’s a culture within society that’s crept in today where people think it won’t happen to them”, Sally said. “If anything, I’m a prime example of how that simply is not the case. When I was told I had cancer, you could have knocked me down with a feather. You just can’t help but be petrified when someone tells you that you have cancer.”
Sally, a Rugby Borough Councillor, initially had an ulcer that wouldn’t go away. Having paid a visit to the dentist and the doctors to get their qualified opinion, both said it was nothing to worry about. Having got the all-clear from them, she went on holiday, but the ulcer did not heal. She recalls: “I just wasn’t happy. I knew I had to persist, and it was probably that persistence that led to the dentist finally referring me to a specialist that saved my life.”
Sally was diagnosed on 31 July 1998 and remembers vividly the ensuing ‘madness’ that followed between that date and when she was scheduled for treatment at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham three weeks later.
“Those three weeks were absolutely terrifying and manic in the same breath. I had to make arrangements to ensure my six year old son could live his life normally, as well as the very sobering task of making a will. Without the support of my friends and family, particularly my husband, I don’t know how I could have coped.”
After a 10-hour operation which involved having her lower back teeth removed, part of her jawbone sawed away, an artery from her arm implanted in her face, skin from her stomach grafted on her arm and the whole tumour on her cheek removed, Sally couldn’t muster the courage to look at herself in the mirror. A four week course of radiotherapy ensued, although this was merely her ‘insurance policy’, her specialist had told her.
“From the beginning of the treatment I never really knew what was around the corner”, she said. “It was almost as if I had been drip fed the information. I made an early decision that I wanted the more radical surgery that could give me a better chance of seeing my little boy grow up. I had to rely on my support around me to take me back and forth from Birmingham every day, and to this day I cannot express how important that was for me.
“I had to remain as positive and as strong as I possibly could, but I also knew when I had to rest. For anyone going through an ordeal like I did, or have done so in the past, then you will know who your true friends are and the value of the support around you.”
In Sally’s case, early detection saved her life. Although she hasn’t been given the all-clear, Sally hopes she can put this journey behind her and has fully recovered. With a new-found vigour for living for today and embracing tomorrow, Sally is fully enjoying life. “I’ll never forget the pain I went through”, she said. “However, life is too short to deal with superficial problems. I’ve been given another chance, and I fully intend to make the most of it.”