Vanessa Panther gave a nickname to the cancer that invaded her mouth and nose, temporarily robbing her of the ability to speak. She called it 'Tumie' – and it's that good humour that helped her get through some of the hardest years of her life.
Two years ago, worried about the constant taste of blood in her mouth, Vanessa, 47, consulted her doctor.
"I knew deep down it wasn't a tooth," she recalls. "And when the doctor looked, right at the back at the top, there was a six-centimetre mass."
A biopsy confirmed it was a salivary gland tumour and soon Vanessa found herself consulting with a plethora of specialists at Auckland Hospital.
"Tumie had been there so long it had eaten through bones," she explains. "It was an extremely slow-growing cancer. I felt run down, but I had no idea why."
Moulds were taken so Vanessa could later be fitted with a prosthetic on the roof of her mouth and back of her nose. Then, in October 2017, she underwent a six-hour operation to have the tumour removed.
Soon after, she was fitted with her first prosthetic while her mouth recovered.
"I had to learn to speak again. Understanding me was extremely hard," says Vanessa. "And I had to learn to eat again. It took an hour and a half to eat 100g of purée. I would drink coffee and it would come out my nose.
"I was embarrassed to go out into the world. I couldn't even look in the mirror because I didn't want to see the frightened woman looking back at me."
Vanessa's cancer nurse suggested she attend a Look Good Feel Better class. The service, which is free to anyone having any form of cancer treatment, provides not only a pamper session and make-up tips to combat the side effects of treatment, but also offers a welcoming environment.
"Everyone was so kind and understanding," says Vanessa. "They took the time to try and understand me."
The experience had such a profound effect on her that when she recovered, she sought a job at the charity and now manages the volunteers who help at the classes. She's also one of this year's ambassadors for the Dry July campaign, who have chosen Look Good Feel Better as the recipient of funds raised by Kiwis sponsored to give up alcohol for the month.
Vanessa recently finished speech therapy and has had her third prosthetic fitted permanently. However, she still needs to be mindful when eating to ensure she doesn't choke.
"Life has changed, but it's not that bad," she muses. "And it's wonderful to go to work and feel you're actually helping someone who's walked the journey that you have."
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