When 62-year-old Gail Andersen struggled with isolation after her cancer diagnosis, the Cancer Society provided much-needed services including support groups and programmes, ongoing contact with a supportive care nurse, and a comfortable home away from home at the Cancer Society’s Lions Lodge when she needed to travel the more than 100km distance for treatment at Waikato Hospital.
Home for Gail and husband Roger is a cosy, character cottage with panoramic views over the Firth of Thames.
The seascape is changeable; choppy and moody one day, calm and blue the next. Occasionally curious orca and dolphins visit the stretch of water and in the summer a steady stream of holiday traffic winds along Thames Coast Road. But when Gail was diagnosed with cancer in October 2017, this seaside idyll offered little consolation and she struggled with feelings of isolation.
“Loneliness has been a huge burden for me to bear and without the services that have been given to me and my family, I do not know where I would be now.”
Before her cancer diagnosis, loneliness wasn’t an issue for this busy grandmother of 11. Gail worked at St Peter’s School in Cambridge as matron, caring for 64 year-thirteen boys. She loved her job.
“When you’re with young people you feel young. You don’t think about life – you just be part of it. And then bang; it stops. I was fighting for my life.”
It was a seemingly innocuous mouth ulcer that offered the first clue something was wrong with Gail’s health.
“I got an ulcer on my tongue and did not think anything of it. You know, you get mouth ulcers and they come and go. And it came and went. And then it came back and took a little bit longer to go away. So I went to my doctor.”
Antibiotics and steroids had no effect. On a second visit to her GP, now in intense pain, Gail was told to go to hospital for a biopsy that same afternoon. The diagnosis was cancer of the tongue.
“The oncologists and the surgeons told us this will be the battle of my life. And the power of wanting to live for Roger, my children and my babies – and me – was so strong, I said to my oncologist, ‘I will fight the battle. I will do it.’ I had no uncertainty. I was going to fight my battle and I was going to survive. Obviously, I had no idea what was involved.”
What was involved was surgery to remove half of Gail’s tongue, which was then reconstructed using tissue from her forearm. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy at Waikato Hospital followed. Being away from home was difficult, but Gail says the “peaceful tranquillity” of the Cancer Society’s Lions Lodge made all the difference.
“My stay at the Lodge was amazing. They cared so greatly for me. The rooms were beautiful. The Lodge manager embraced me in a hug when we got there and almost – to me – never let go and always had the time to answer questions, because as you can imagine there are a million questions going through your mind.
“And they were always there. At night it was hard because it got dark and everyone went to their room, but not the Lodge’s evening staff. They would just come and say, ‘hi, how’re you doing?’ or ‘come and have a cup of tea with me’. They were always there. I was never alone. I didn’t want to be on my own. Some people like to have that time, but I was frightened.”
The surgery has had a lasting impact on Gail, making it difficult to eat and affecting her speech.
“One of the biggest problems I encountered in the community was when people could not understand what I was saying. And I was devastated – I had so much to say, but I could not get it out.”
Gail’s speech is slightly slurred, but clear. She talks slowly and deliberately, and it’s obvious it takes a great deal of effort and perseverance as she slowly adjusts to the way her voice now sounds.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learnt and have struggled with – and still do – is I want to be normal…I want my old life back. But with intensive help from very special people, they have taught me now that I have a new normal.”
One of those ‘special people’ is Cancer Society supportive care nurse Penny Parsons, a regular visitor to the Andersen’s seaside home. Gail recalls clearly the day she first met the bubbly nurse.
“I looked at her and I just wanted to grab her. It was a grip of life; I was clinging on to this wonderful woman and she was always there. I would ring, I knew I could text, I knew the lifeline was solid.”
Penny supported Gail to connect with other people affected by head and neck cancers who have been impacted in similar ways. Penny also arranged therapeutic massage for Gail, frozen meals and encouraged her to complete the Look Good Feel Better programme. As a result, Gail is gradually regaining her confidence.
“I am now in the community. I’m walking everywhere. I’m mixing with people. I have joined the library volunteering. I am also involved at the Treasury [an archive and genealogy centre in Thames]. I went to my first movie. I have started putting lipstick on,” Gail says with a smile.
“I found the two biggest things in most people’s lives is talking and eating, and those two things I have struggled with because they were taken away from me. Not any more.”