Patient Story: Liz Gray 

In The Beginning

I was born and bred in Invercargill, am 61 years of age, never smoked and didn’t drink. I left high school and worked at a solicitor’s as a legal typist, married at 17 years of age and had three beautiful children, a son and two daughters. Prior to having my youngest I got quite sick in 1980 and was diagnosed with Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura otherwise known as ITP and was given a splenectomy. ITP is a low platelet count (white blood cells). 

Since the splenectomy I have to carry antibiotics with me everywhere as I have a very low immune system and can get sick quite quickly. I also have injections every two years to help with my immune system. After my youngest was 2 ½ years of age I worked at a Drycleaners as Office Manager and was there for 21 years. My first husband was killed in a car crash on his 42nd birthday and my second husband died on my birthday in bed beside me with a massive heart attack. 

But I have been blessed with nine wonderful grandchildren ranging from 18 to 1. I have since been with my partner for the past 11 years and we have now become property developers where we build new properties and rent them out. We are in the process of building 11 apartments and hopefully they will be finished by December 2016 ready for the rental market. 

One of the things we do every year has been to travel. For our first four years together we had a caravan in Australia and travelled all around Australia for about three to four month of the year, avoiding the New Zealand winter. We have since purchased a property over in Australia at Twin Waters on the Sunshine Coast and we still go over there for about three to four months of our New Zealand winter. For the past four years we also went cruising. The first one was around Vanuatu and the islands, the next one was the Mediterranean and then we did Spain and Portugal. one was to China and Beijing where we went to my home stay’s daughter’s wedding and that was a full Chinese wedding. Last year we cruised around Asia. 

The Diagnosis 

On our return to New Zealand after our cruise around Asia, my journey began. I had a bit of a nagging cough which is not unusual for me but it just did not seem to go away so I went to my doctor. Glands were a bit swollen and I was given two different inhalers to use. Cough improved and so did my sore throat but for some reason things did not seem right. I put my fingers down my throat and found a lump on my tongue which I did not like the feel of so back to the doctor. Three weeks later, he referred me to an ENT specialist who took a biopsy. The result of that was on the 30 th October 2015 my life totally changed forever. I had cancer, something I never wanted to hear. 

He organised a CT Scan and I also had to have a PET Scan. On 23 rd November 2015 was the result of the PET Scan and the doctor said, “Well I am sorry to say it is not good.” It had spread to my lymph glands in my neck and in my groin. I went to see another specialist who wanted me to have biopsies done of the glands in my neck and groin and the result of this was better than I expected. They had downgraded the cancer from a IV to a III and II. I had Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the base of the tongue Level II and Level III. 

The Treatment Plan My oncologist had done the plan for my treatment. She did not want to operate as she felt it would create more issues but the treatment was going to be aggressive. Treatment started on the 14th December 2015 which consisted of chemotherapy in the morning and radiation in the afternoon for the first week, second week off, third week the same as the first, fourth week off then the next three weeks was radiation in the morning and again in the afternoon. I had to wait for six hours before I had the second dose for the day. 

The Side Effects 

On my first day of treatment I ended up in hospital with very high blood pressure. It was 215. They had to cancel day five of my chemotherapy treatments due to the high blood pressure and they changed the type of chemotherapy so I only had to have one full day of chemotherapy in my third week. During this time I ended up getting blood clots in my arm due to the PICC Line so was put on a course of Clexane injections for three months. 

The end of week six of my treatment I hit a brick wall and went downhill very fast. I was given morphine to help me with the pain and on the 25 th January 2016 I was put on a PEG feeding tube to help me with my food as there was no way I could eat. 

29 th January 2016 could not come quick enough as it was the last day of my treatment. I struggled with the pain in my mouth from ulcers over the next few weeks as they were not healing. Got the feeding tube taken out after a month which made me feel so much better. Food was still a struggle though and I had no taste and no saliva glands. 

18 th March was the last day for my Clexane injections a milestone for me that day. My days were spent in bed and sleeping as I was on a fairly high dose of morphine and the pain from the ulcers was not going away as they were not healing. 14 th April 2016 I finally got medication to help the healing process plus I was put on antidepressants as I had hit another brick wall. 

As time went by my days seemed to be getting better. I lost 15kg in weight but I was very lucky that I had the weight to lose. 

The Way Ahead It is now eight months since treatment finished, I am no longer taking any medication apart from multi vitamins and probiotic tablets. My eating is pretty good but I do struggle with taste. One day it can be reasonably good then the next day everything is so bland. I have no saliva glands and have been told this will most likely be permanent so I have my drink bottle with me all the time as this is my new normal. I feel good, and every week I improve and feel I am getting more energy every day. 

My oncologist is very happy with my progress and has told me that the cancer has gone. I still live in that fear that it will come back but I am a survivor and I have my support group which consisted of my partner, my children, my grandchildren and my friends that got me through. I still go to the doctor monthly to get blood tests and have my blood pressure taken and I am down to three monthly visits with my oncologist, two monthly visits with my ENT specialist and three monthly visits with my dentist. 

My goal next year is to travel to Canada, go on then do an Alaskan and a Caribbean cruise I look at myself as a very lucky person and I treasure every day 

Liz Gray 13th September 2016 

In 2020, Liz is still doing very well.