Emma Shanks studies cancer at our Beatson Institute in Glasgow.
But 13 years ago, she got an unexpected and unwelcome insight into the disease: she was diagnosed with oral cancer, not once but four times in succession.
Happily, she’s now cancer-free and living life to the full, and says her experience of cancer has given her a new motivation in her work.
Hers is just one of the stories featured in our Annual Review, highlighting the progress we’re making and our aims for the future.
‘Awareness can go a long way’
I was 24 and studying molecular biology when I noticed an ulcer on the side of my tongue. It was still there a few months later and wasn’t healing – in fact it kind of got worse. And it started to hurt all the time because it would rub on my teeth.
A little later I moved to Dundee to start my PhD in molecular biology. I still had the ulcer but I didn’t think anything of it other than it was so sore all the time. Once I got settled in Dundee I registered with a dentist and that’s when things changed. The dentist I saw was aware of the signs and symptoms of oral cancer so when he saw my ulcer and I told him how long I’d had it for he referred me to the dental hospital to have it looked at.
At the dental hospital the doctors took biopsies from the area around the ulcer. The results showed I had oral cancer.
I felt numb when they told me – I couldn’t deal with the enormity of it all.
The doctors told me it was unusual for someone of my age to have oral cancer, but because it had been caught early the outlook was good. I had surgery to remove about a third of my tongue to clear the area of cancer which was difficult.
At the time I was in the second year of my PhD so my life pretty much revolved around the lab, studying and hanging out with friends. I couldn’t wait to get back to it after my surgery.
‘It felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach’
Seven years later I noticed some white spots on my tongue. I had another biopsy. The results confirmed my worst fears – my cancer had come back. It was a massive blow and was really hard to be back in that head space again. All I could remember was how incredibly painful it had all been the first time round
By this time I was with David – he was such an immense support to me and stayed by my side the whole time. I had more surgery to remove more of my tongue and thankfully it was a success.
Life carried on as normal for the next two years. I was in good health and David and I had our first child – a little boy called Jamie.
But then the cancer came back for a third time.
This time round, Jamie was a whole new reason to survive – I had to get through this for him. I had a third surgery to remove the cancer. It was extremely tough, but I got through it. I had to for my son.
‘It was unbearable to think about’
A year later things were looking up again. I was enjoying working in a lab as a cancer researcher and had given birth to my second child, a little girl called Isobel. We were a happy family of four.
But the bubble burst again. I was diagnosed with oral cancer for a fourth time. It was two weeks after I’d given birth to Isobel.
After I got the diagnosis I looked at my daughter and thought, “If I die, she’ll have no memory of me”. It was unbearable. I recorded my voice for her to listen to while I was in hospital, just talking to her and singing her silly songs.
I looked at my daughter and thought, ‘If I die, she’ll have no memory of me’
But I couldn’t bring myself to record any goodbyes. The thought of it was heartbreaking.
This time the treatment was more complex and even more painful. I had an eight-hour operation to remove a large section of my tongue, which was then replaced with a graft from my forearm. I needed a tube in my neck so I could breathe and another tube to eat.
The treatment was awful. The whole thing was so painful and really unpleasant – I even had to learn how to talk again.
This time was the hardest, and not just because of the treatment.
I couldn’t see my son Jamie the whole time I was in hospital – he was nearly two years old so it would have been too hard for him to see me like that. Thankfully, I did get to see Isobel – she was too young to fully understand what was happening. Seeing her really got me back on my feet.
I wanted to spend more time with them, have more time as a family. I had to get better for them – and for myself.
My parents were amazing each time I was diagnosed, but particularly the fourth time. They moved in to the family home for a couple of months to help with David and the kids and everything – they were an invaluable support.
When I left the hospital after my reconstruction operation – my fifth in total – I was so emotional. It felt like I’d been released from jail. I took everything in, from the blue sky to the green grass and cuddled the kids. I’m grateful that I can enjoy the simple things in life now, like seeing Jamie and Isobel feed the animals on our farm.
It’s amazing what doctors can do and how far we’ve come in treating cancer. And despite how hard my treatment was, I feel lucky to be alive.
‘Research saved me’
I’ve been told there is a less than three per cent chance of the cancer returning, so I’m hopeful I’ve beaten the disease. I may have had cancer four times, but it won’t define me.
One of the good things to come out of this whole thing is that I’m now more confident as a person. Previously I used to get nervous before giving a presentation, but now I remind myself that I didn’t go through all that treatment just to stand up and be scared of a little talk.
And I’m actively trying to increase awareness of the signs and symptoms of oral cancer, and give people an idea of what it’s like to go through cancer by giving presentations to students and GPs about my experience.
Working in cancer research is a really fulfilling career. And because someone else’s research saved me, I want to help save others. Having cancer makes my work even more meaningful and I’m even more motivated to find better, smarter ways of treating cancer now.
My goal is to see something we find at the Beatson used to treat oral cancer patients.