A brush with death changed Helen’s life in more ways than one.
Here, Helen MacGeachie, 46, tells the story in her own words.
W￼aking up, I felt the familiar bump under my tongue.
A few months earlier an ulcer had sprung up. It wasn’t sore, but it seemed to be growing.
At the back of my mouth, it was hard to see in the mirror, so I asked friends to take a look. But they couldn’t spot it either. Surely it’s not a big deal? I thought.
Between a demanding job and keeping fit, there wasn’t much time to worry about it. And I was busy dating too.
Aged 40, I’d seen my friends marry and settle down, but I just hadn’t met my Mr Right.
Going on dates wasn’t always much fun though. As we fired questions back and forth, it often felt more like a job interview than a friendly drink.
My sister Sandra and her hubby, Ian, wanted to help. ‘Can I set you up?’ Ian asked one day. His friend Justin, 47, and I had gone to school in the same area more than 20 years earlier and I’d seen him around. ‘Doesn’t he smoke?’ I said, shaking my head.
Health conscious, I hated cigarettes and the smell.
Soon after, I decided to get the mouth ulcer checked. By now the bump had been there about six months and it felt like the size of a 10-cent coin. The doctor said if it didn’t go away in a week, he’d refer me to a specialist.
But by chance, I had a dental appointment already booked and the dentist looked at the ulcer.
‘I think you should get it checked out by a specialist,’ she said, arranging for me to go the very next day. There, they took a biopsy and two days later my phone rang. My heart sank as I was told I needed to go back.
With Sandra by my side, I listened in shock to the diagnosis.‘You have tongue cancer,’ the surgeon explained.
Sandra became tearful, but I focused on how I was going to beat it. I’m not going to die from this, I told myself.
The plan was to remove a third of my tongue and replace it with muscle from my groin, because the tissue from there is a good cosmetic match.
My lymph nodes on the right side of my neck also had to go, to stop the cancer from spreading.
A month after my diagnosis, I went under the knife. Afterwards, I had a big scar and was fed through a tube, before moving on to liquidised food.
Then, I slowly learnt to talk with my new tongue, while undergoing six weeks of gruelling radiotherapy.
By the end, my mouth was sore and burnt, and I had gone from 55 kilos to just 46.
Throughout it all, my friends and family were my absolute rocks.
Slowly but surely, my mouth healed, and with the help of speech therapy, I learned to talk clearly again.
Two years later, I was over the moon when I was given the all clear. But surviving cancer had changed my attitude to life – and love. Life’s too short to wait for a man to come along, I decided. It was time to focus on the things I could control.
So, I stopped looking for love and concentrated on my job, friends and my hobbies, like fitness and yoga.
I also became an ambassador for Beyond Five, a charity that works to improve the quality of life for people with head
and neck cancers.
Free from feeling like I always needed to be on the look out for a potential match, I found myself happier than I had been in many years.
Then, in November 2015, I was in the supermarket when I bumped into Justin. ‘Why have you and me never gone for a drink?’ he grinned. ‘Because you never asked me!’ I laughed.
I might have decided not to waste time chasing love, but my post-cancer attitude was to seize the day! And, so what if he was a smoker? I thought.
Cancer had taught me that you never know what’s around the corner, and the little things don’t matter.
So we went for a drink and I found the conversation flowed easily. When smoking came up, I was in for a surprise. ‘I quit five years ago!’ Justin said.
The more time we spent together, the more I liked him. Soon, we were in love and a year later we moved in together.
Going into a relationship at a time when I was happy with my life made all the difference.
If I hadn’t had my brush with death, I might never have found him, I realised. Amazingly, my cancer had led me to love.
In October 2016, I went to Sri Lanka by myself.
Coming back late from the airport, I found Justin had already gone to bed. As I climbed in, he turned towards me. ‘Will you marry me?’ he asked. ‘Yes!’ I beamed.
Three months later, we had a beautiful ceremony by the beach in front of our loved ones.
Swapping vows, I was over the moon to share my life with the man I loved.
Fighting cancer was a terrible experience, but finding Justin truly was the silver lining. Now, I try to enjoy each and every day. You never know what life has in store for you.
Read more in this week's issue of that's life!, on sale now.