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“It was the best day of my life” – Complex, high risk cancer surgery gives Bristol man a second chance

Last updated: 07/03/2022

Colin\'s story

Colin Reilly from Bristol said “there’s not enough [he] can do to pay the hospital back”, after undergoing a 12-hour operation to remove a life-threatening tumour from the back of his tongue.

The complex surgery required the Bristol Royal Infirmary’s ear, nose and throat (ENT) and maxillofacial surgery teams to work in partnership to split open Colin’s jaw, dismantle his neck and tongue, remove the tumour fully and then reconstruct the lower half of Colin’s face.

The position of the tumour made the operation particularly high risk, and it wasn’t guaranteed whether it would be a success or if Colin would be able to speak or eat again.

Colin, who is 50 years old, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2020 after experiencing a pain in his neck for two months. An endoscopy found a lump at the back of his tongue, and in August that year it was confirmed that this was a tumour.

From October 2020 to December 2020, Colin underwent six weeks of radiotherapy treatment and had a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tube fitted in place of eating solid food. During this time Colin and his partner Lisa worked with the hospital’s speech and language therapists (SLTs), dietitians and Macmillan head and neck cancer nurse specialists, who were instrumental to his recovery.

Donna Graham, one of Colin’s Macmillan head and neck cancer nurse specialists, said: “Treatment was really tough for Colin, but he remained motivated throughout and had the amazing support of his partner Lisa”

Unfortunately, in March 2021 Colin’s throat cancer returned. Following a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, it became apparent that the tumour was very advanced, and that the chances of a cure were extremely low. If left untreated, Colin was told he would have six months to live.

“Mr Oliver Dale was amazing,” said Colin about his ENT surgeon. “He told us that he believed he could do the surgery, despite how difficult it was. It meant so much to us that he was so encouraging.”

Ahead of the surgery, Colin worked with speech and language therapist Dayna Freeney to understand the potential impact of the surgery on his ability to eat and speak. In preparation for the possibility that he may not be able to speak again, it was arranged for Colin to record a voice bank, so that if he needed to use a speech-generating communication device following the operation it would use his own voice.

The 12-hour operation took place in May 2021. The surgical team needed to split Colin’s jaw bone to access the tumour at the back of his throat. The tumour was removed taking care to preserve the vital blood vessels and nerves that supplied his remaining tongue. Microscopic techniques were then used to reconstruct Colin’s tongue and voice box with tissue from his arm.  This had an unexpected consequence of moving Colin’s tattoo of a grim reaper, which had been on his forearm, to the back of his throat.

Mr Oliver Dale, ear, nose and throat surgeon said: “Unfortunately Colin is one of the 12,000 people each year who are diagnosed with throat cancer in the UK.

“Recent technological advances mean that we are able to treat cancers where previously it may not have been possible.

“In Bristol we are lucky to have a fantastic team who work closely with patients like Colin to help them achieve good outcomes following treatment for advanced head and neck cancer.”

Mr John Collin, the maxillofacial consultant who led on the reconstruction element of Colin’s surgery, said: “It is a pleasure to work with excellent colleagues and care for patients like Colin.

“He has always remained positive despite his extensive treatment and I am delighted with how he has recovered.

“I’m sorry we spoilt Colin’s tattoo, but it’s always good to get one over on the grim reaper.”

On Colin’s first day in the intensive care unit after surgery, the balloon which had been placed in Colin's tracheostomy was deflated, so they could find out whether he would be able to speak or not.

Describing the moment his medical team heard his voice again, Colin said: “Oliver [Dale] nearly fell of his chair, he was so surprised!”

Determined from the beginning of his diagnosis that cancer wouldn’t beat him, Colin channelled the same energy into his recovery. He worked with Dayna and the SLT team to focus on his communication and swallowing.

“The key thing was to empower him,” explained Dayna.

“Colin had good speech function while in hospital and after two weeks he was able to protect his own airway, so we were able to have this tracheostomy taken out.

“It really was a case of teamwork between ourselves as the medical team and Colin and Lisa as a partnership, and they were the real driving force of Colin’s recovery.”

He was expected to be in hospital for a month after his surgery, but Colin was well enough to be discharged after just two and a half weeks.

Twelve weeks after the operation, Colin underwent scans to assess whether the operation had managed to fully remove the tumour.

Colin said: “I was told that there was nothing to worry about and it was all out. It was the best day of my life.”

As part of his recovery at home, Colin does regular physiotherapy and has started to talk more about the trauma of undergoing life-saving surgery.

“Part of our work as speech and language therapists is to validate that experiencing trauma after surgery and intensive care is completely normal,” said Dayna, who had regular appointments with Colin and Lisa after he was discharged from hospital, to further his rehabilitation.

Colin has since spoken in front of two year groups of speech and language therapy students about his experience, to let them know how important their role has been for his recovery.

Lisa, Colin’s partner, thanked the hospital team for all their support during and after Colin’s treatment: “We truly felt like they were our family.

“Going through such a terrifying time, not only did they help Colin so brilliantly, but I don’t know what I would’ve done without their support, which in turn helped me to support Colin. Incredible people.”

Looking to the future, Colin now wants to help others who find themselves in the situation he was in back in 2020.

“I know I’ve been lucky, years ago I had a friend who died of throat cancer,” said Colin.

“I thank God for the technology and surgical advancement which have given me this second chance. There not enough I can do to pay the hospital back.”