I was devastated when ‘toothache’ turned out to be incurable cancer – I thought I had food stuck in my tooth

A MUM who thought her tooth pain was caused by stuck food was shocked to be told she had incurable cancer.

Christine Palfrey, 42, thought at worst, there would be an abscess – and never imagined cancer because “no one in her family had it”.


After concerned doctors ran scans, they found Christine had an extremely rare and aggressive cancer of the salivary glands.

She was told she may only have three years left to live and had gruelling surgery to remove the tumour, part of her jawbone, tongue and some teeth.

But remarkably, nine years after her diagnosis in early 2013, Christine is thriving and said: "I am absolutely determined to live life to the full.”

Christine, an ex-dental nurse from Bampton, Oxfordshire, first experienced pain in her jaw in December 2012.

She blamed her tiredness – a common symptom of cancer – on her frequent exercising and not eating enough.

Then, one Sunday in early December 2012, Christine woke with an excruciating toothache in her left lower jaw.

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“I’m an ex dental nurse, so I thought it couldn't be my wisdom teeth because I was in my thirties," she said.

"I was sure it would be something and nothing – maybe a little bit of food that had got trapped.”

But when the dentist X-rayed Christine’s jaw, he did not like what he saw.

“He said it could be an abscess, but he didn’t want to speculate and said he would refer me to a specialist in the next couple of days which, of course, set off alarm bells," Christine said.

"When I left, I thought, 'He can’t think it’s an abscess, or he’d have given me antibiotics.'

"I still didn’t think for one second it would be cancer, because nobody in my family has had it.”

Christine was referred to King's College Hospital in south east London where a surgeon found a solid lump – but reassured Christine it could be non-cancerous.

Christine said: “When I left, I walked out into a part of London I didn’t really know and suddenly everywhere I looked I saw signs which I’d never seen before that were all about cancer."

Once home, Christine told her former husband, who is the father to her daughter, Victoria, 21.

She recalled: "He just said, 'It can’t be [cancer]. You don’t smoke and you don’t have any family history’.”

LIFE SENTENCE

But after Christmas, Christine was told to come back into the hospital and to make sure her husband was with her.

Christine was told she had Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC), which is usually found in the glands in the head and neck.

It's diagnosed in just five in ever million people in the UK each year, according to Salivary Gland Cancer.

Christine remembers tears pouring down her face as her military husband asked: "What happens now?”

On the same day, Christine was sent to the London Bridge Hospital, where a specialist booked her in for surgery.

She said: "I didn’t know anything about cancer back then. He told me it was stage 4 and said although it was treatable it was not curable.

“So, I asked how long I had left to live and he said, generally, three to five years.”

But for Christine, almost more daunting than the operation had been the task of telling her daughter Victoria that she had cancer.

Christine recalled: “Everyone was crying, but I just kept telling Victoria, 'You know how strong your mother is. She will get through this… This is just a bump in the road, so we just need to focus on the future’.”

A week after the diagnosis, Christine went ahead with a 12-hour operation. 

Bone from her hip was used to replace the section of jawbone which was cut away to remove the cancer.

The procedure changed the shape of Christine’s face and left her with a huge scar down her neck. It also meant she had to learn to talk again.

She spent almost a year recovering not only from the surgery itself, but from the subsequent radiotherapy treatment which burned the skin off her face, neck and ears.

“You haven’t had mouth ulcers until you’ve had the one caused by radiation treatment,” she said.

Christine then had to have three further operations to remove secondary cancer from her lungs.

In 2015 two tumours were found in her left lung, and in the summer of 2021, she had two operations in order to treat her right lung.

Sadly, Christine’s first marriage could not withstand the stress and ended in divorce in 2015.

But Chrstine’s treatment has seen her outlive her prognosis by several years, and she has six monthly scans to monitor her condition. 

She said: “At the moment, I am in a good place and there are no more secondaries.

“I have my next scan in February, so the baseline is that I am not cured but I have been successfully treated.”

Christine found love again with Barry Weeks, 51, a technical director who she met at the IT hosting company where she works as a compliance specialist.

Christine said: “I was at work one Monday morning explaining to Barry how I’d finally learned how to eat Wotsits over the weekend.

"He asked me to demonstrate, so I found myself at 8am doing a seal impression and, after going out for coffee together, in the February of 2016, we started dating.”

The pair married on November 27 ​​​​​​at a fairy-tale Welsh castle with 54 guests and Victoria as bridesmaid. 

Describing her husband Barry as someone who knows how to bring "life" to a room, Christine is determined to share the same positivity going forwards.

She said: "I am following a positive life force and now Barry has given me even more to look forward to in the future, too.”

Christine is supporting Cancer Research UK's Play Your Part campaign, which underlines how everyone has a part to play in the fight against the disease.

To find out more about Cancer Research UK's Play Your Part Campaign go to www.cancerresearchuk.org.



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