August 2003: most people think of the very hot summer when London hit 40°C, but I missed the horrors of sweltering in the Tube because I was out cold in intensive care after my second operation for a recurrence of jaw cancer.
It had been a shock, two years earlier, following the extraction of a wisdom tooth, to discover that I had cancer because I had never smoked and I was pretty fit for someone in her late fifties. I approached the first operation much as I would tackle a stiff climb in the Alps, concentrating only on the rewards. The novelty of hospital life got me through the week until I was able to speak normally if not yet eat, my face swollen and bruised but recognisably my own. Although all the molars and much of the adjacent bone had been removed along the right side of my lower jaw, which had meant opening up my lip, neck and jaw, my jaw line had not changed and the scars soon faded. The six weeks of daily radiotherapy later that summer were not pleasant, but soon life returned pretty much to normal. People who met me had no idea that my face had been taken apart.
In 2003 I knew that I could not come through the second operation as unscathed because there was now no question of saving the right side of my lower jaw: it would have to be removed and replaced with another bone. It is very odd to have a surgeon look at you in terms of potential spare parts to mend your face. As a keen walker, I was very relieved when my legs proved unsuitable. The best option seemed to be a bit of my right shoulderblade. The grafted bone would be attached to the good? left lower jaw but not hinged to my skull, and the surgeons would have to expose and stretch the facial nerve, which might not recover for months, if at all. It would be much harder to eat and speak, and my appearance would be affected. But I would be alive a little longer, and wouldn't lose my mobility or my sight.
I had bounced back after the first operation, but I didn't relish the idea of a tracheotomy, the bedpans or being fed through a naso-gastric tube again. What helped most was that I liked and trusted my surgeons: I cannot imagine what it would be like to put your face and life in their hands if you did not.
By the time I left hospital I was relieved to find that I really didn't look too bad, all things considered. The right side of my face was swollen and immobile, my right eye did not blink, my mouth was lopsided and I now had a lantern jaw, but I reckoned I looked 70% myself and I knew things would improve as they did. I suspect that the facial paralysis made me look odder than I realised, but I didn't feel that I rated a second glance in the street. Anyway, what mattered was that I was alive. Now, four years on, not only am I alive, which I didn't expect, but I have done things that seemed impossible back then. I dreamed then of returning to the Alps, perhaps for the last time in fact I have been back every summer since, still able to climb up to 2000m and beyond, where the flowers and the views are spectacular. I?m playing tennis again none the worse for the operation even though initially I couldn't raise my right arm above waist height and kayaking (admittedly only on the tranquil Cam). Of course I savour these pleasures all the more now. I still eat extremely slowly and sometimes it's hard to articulate. These are far greater handicaps than my altered appearance because so much social interaction involves eating, drinking and talking. My friends don't mind, but I do. Talking to strangers is harder, but in reality my speech is perfectly comprehensible. Still, I?m glad that, as an editor and translator, I don't have to speak for a living. My experience has made me acutely aware of how fortunate I am to live in the 21st century. Not so long ago, my treatment would have been brutal, and reconstructive surgery limited. Nowadays the scans are incredibly accurate and the techniques of micro-surgery allow grafts that would have been unimaginable in the past. The anaesthetics and pain-control drugs have improved enormously. It's the result of much hard work and research by people, including the FSRF Saving Faces. I am deeply grateful to be the beneficiary of their efforts and I hope I can contribute in some small way to making things even better in future.