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Peak commitment

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Peak commitment

A Coast physiotherapist is raising awareness of a little-known group of cancers after her own survival story. WORDS: Ingrid Nelson.

Most people never hear of head and neck cancer until they or loved ones are diagnosed with it.

July is World Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month and Sunshine Coast resident Anna Bofinger is on a mission to raise awareness and support the vital work of Head and Neck Cancer Australia: the only national organisation dedicated to supporting patients with the disease.

This Saturday, the local physiotherapist and mum of two will complete a five-peak challenge, raising funds to improve patient pathways. As a head and neck cancer survivor, it’s a cause close to her heart.

“Three years ago, I was absolutely shocked to be diagnosed with tongue cancer,” Anna says. “I was in my 50s, a non-smoker, not a heavy drinker – I had none of the risk factors associated with it.”

Anna underwent radical surgery and six weeks of gruelling radiotherapy, which greatly affected her ability to eat and speak for several months.

“It was brutal. They had to remove part of my tongue and reconstruct it with tissue from my forearm as well as remove the lymph nodes in my neck,” she says. “I couldn’t talk. It was too painful. I couldn’t eat via my mouth. I relied on a gastric tube. I lost 10 kilos at my lowest point.”

Thankfully, she is now fully recovered and is grateful to the team of professionals who helped her on the road to recovery.

“From the surgeons to the speech therapists to the dietitians, I had a wonderful support team after my diagnosis – I couldn’t fault them,” Anna says.

She is passionate about sharing the importance of early detection and treatment, as well as better education across medical and dental professions.

“Doctors and dentists are aware of the changing face of head and neck cancer,” Anna says.

“The reality is that patients are often diagnosed at a later stage. Unfortunately, the symptoms they present with often mimic benign problems and are dismissed until the disease is already established.

“The earlier the cancers are picked up, the less invasive for patients and the better the outcome. It’s also so important to seek a second opinion if you are still concerned.”

So, what are the early warning signs?

“Things like a lump in the neck, a red or white patch in the mouth or on the tongue, a hoarse voice or trouble speaking, a sore throat that doesn’t improve or an earache that doesn’t get better,” Anna says. “If you have these symptoms longer than three weeks, they should be attended to.”

Anna will climb Mt Ngungun, Mt Tibberoowuccum, Mt Coolum, Mount Ninderry and Mt Cooroora. All money raised will go to Head and Neck Cancer Australia.

Did you know?

  • Mucosal head and neck cancers are diagnosed in about 3500 Australians every year, representing two to three per cent of all cancers.
  • Mucosal head and neck cancer is nearly twice as common in men and often diagnosed in people over the age of 50.
  • Thyroid cancers are more common than mucosal head and neck cancers and occur in 2400 Australians every year.
  • The most important risk factors for mucosal head and neck cancer are tobacco (cigarette smoking, cigars,
    pipes, chewing tobacco or snuff) and alcohol use.

Visit headandneckcancer.org.au.

To support Anna, go to support.headandneckcancer.org.au/my-fundraising/147/anna-bofinger—5-peak-challenge-sunshine-coast/.

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Ingrid Nelson is the Co Editor of My Weekly Preview and a journalist with more than 20 years’ experience.

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