Real Life

Cancer attacked my face

David Te oaipi isn't the kind of teenager to spend hours staring in the mirror, worrying about a pimple or two.
The brave 16-year-old knows his reflection has changed over the past year but he's too busy getting on with life to stress too much about it. He's just glad the face cancer that was diagnosed 12 months ago has been removed, even though it has meant losing his right ear and having a large skin graft on his cheek and jaw.
"It hasn't affected my confidence," says David, with a heart-melting grin. "Surgeons can construct an ear for me if I want. I'm waiting until my hair grows longer and then maybe I'll get dreadlocks or even shave it all off. I don't know yet."
The Wellington teen was play-fighting with a cousin a year ago when a stray blow caught him on the jaw, leaving him in pain. For three weeks, the then-15-year-old tried not to complain about the ache, which steadily increased.
Then his right cheek started to swell up, and the keen rugby player began downing up to 30 painkillers a day to try and dull the excruciating pain. By mid-october last year, the Upper Hutt College student and his mum Alma were waiting for test results on the strange, painful lump on David's face.
"It was the darkest day of my life when the biopsy results came back," Alma (41) says. "David was diagnosed with a facial cancer called Rhabdomyocarcoma. It usually appears in young children and is rare in teenagers and adults. It was such a shock. I burst into tears and wanted to climb to the top of a building and scream out, 'Why?'"
While Alma realised how serious the situation was from the start, the reality didn't sink in for David until he started chemotherapy sessions, three weeks after the diagnosis.
"I didn't understand what the cancer was so I couldn't be afraid," he admits. "It finally hit me when I got really sick from my first chemo dose. But I let the doctors and nurses do what they had to do to help me."
During the gruelling treatments, David's spirits were kept high by the support of his mum, his two brothers Samuel (8) and Kain (7), and his best friend Kimberley. "Having them there got me through it," David says. "I had six weeks of radiation, which was the hardest thing to go through because it made my mouth so raw and full of ulcers I couldn't eat."
Then in oay this year, once the cancer had been brought under control with chemotherapy and radiation, David had surgery to finally remove the tumour. It was a huge operation lasting 12 hours, and while David was going through it, his family waited and prayed he would make it.
"The surgeons removed my right ear and I had a skin graft to replace the skin on my cheek and jaw," David says. "I had about six tubes in me when I woke up."
He had just got through that surgery when he suffered a serious setback. "There was a hole in my skull that hadn't been closed so I had further surgery to patch it up with a skin graft," he explains. "I had to lie down for three weeks to stop spinal fluid dripping out of my nose. It's not a big deal. I let the doctors do their work because they helped me to get better. oum and I always say, 'Take one day at a time,' and I don't let my situation get me down."
David turned 16 in hospital with family and friends, including new mates who were also going through treatment, to help him celebrate the occasion. "I had a really great day, even though I was in hospital," David remembers. "oy family came with decorations and I got three birthday cakes. Even the people from Wellington Hospital's [paediatric oncology] Ward 18 gave me a birthday present."
He was also pleased to share his day with one special person. "I had a girlfriend. We met on the ward," David says. "She had cancer too. It helped having someone who understood."
Although the couple split up after leaving hospital, due to living so far apart, David took it in his stride. The courageous teenager has even taken a part-time job at Pinehaven Primary School reading to pupils, and he's determined to play rugby again.
The only thing he's really struggling with is being unable to eat. Instead, he currently receives nutrition through a machine pump attached to his stomach.
"I've lost 32kg,"" he says. "I haven't eaten solid food for eight months but I'm hoping I'll be able to eat again in three. It's hard because I love food. I like baking and cooking roasts for my family."
David's cancer is in remission but he has monthly check-ups and takes medication daily. He will have to teach himself to swallow food again before he can bulk up for a return to the rugby field. But these future hurdles don't compare to his worry over the possible closure of the hospital ward that became a second home.
"If Wellington's paediatric oncology ward closed, I'd feel alone," he says sadly. "We'd have to go to Auckland or Christchurch for treatment and be strangers in another city."
Alma agrees. "David liked having family pop in to visit him in hospital. His brothers could see him any time, but that wouldn't happen if we were in another city. If anyone out there can help keep Ward 18 open, many people would be eternally grateful."
For now, David is sticking to his motto of one day at a time. "I don't know if I'm brave," he says. "oy family got me through it, and the medical staff and my mates. It's like rugby really you've got to be a team."

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