Body

Real life: There were bugs under my skin

'If I didn't do something about it, I'd die.'

By As told to Take 5

Jean McInerney, 78, from Casino, NSW, tells her story

Warning: Graphic images within this article.

I plonked my handbag on the dining room table and headed straight for the kitchen to get cooking.

'Thank god that's over,' I said to my husband, Reg.

It was Christmas Eve and we'd just been at the doctor's to get a skin cancer frozen from my nose.

It had been itchy and red for days and when my doctor confirmed it was cancerous, he arranged to remove it immediately.

Thankfully, he got it all, so I was free to enjoy Christmas with my three grown-up kids and two young grandsons.

Life carried on after that. I pottered round in the garden and played weekly bingo.

I was devastated when my daughter passed away suddenly, but Reg and my two sons helped me through my grief.

One night, I was in the shower when I felt something hard on the side of my nose. It didn't hurt and you couldn't see it, but there was definitely something there.

'Feel this, love,' I said to Reg.

'You'd better see the doc,' he frowned, prodding the hard flesh.

The surgeries were tough. **Pictures exclusive to Take 5.**
The surgeries were tough. Pictures exclusive to Take 5.

I was referred to a dermatologist and mentioned the skin cancer I'd had removed earlier.

'It's nothing to worry about,' he said. 'I'll have another look in six weeks.'

I was relieved, but afterwards, the stiff skin seemed to be spreading across my left cheek and around my eye. It couldn't be normal.

Again, the dermatologist was unfazed by it when I went back.

'Come for another check-up in 12 months,' he said.

12 months!

Reg and I stared at each other, dumbfounded. We weren't doctors- were we being overly worried about this?

'Maybe it's just part of ageing,' I said as we headed home.

Weeks later, I was at the optometrist when his fingers happened to brush the firm flesh on my cheek.

'I've been told it's nothing,' I explained.

He frowned and gently touched the area, tracing it all the way up to my eyebrow.

'This doesn't feel like nothing,' he frowned, arranging for me to have a biopsy.

I was in my living room when my doctor called with the results.

Reg's face turned white as he realised what I was hearing.

'Cancer?' he asked, and all I could do was nod.

It was something called squamous cell carcinoma with cranial infiltration, which was basically face cancer. They weren't sure if it was related to the one I'd had removed from my nose 10 years earlier.

But it was extremely aggressive.

If I'd waited 12 months like the dermatologist had recommended, I'd be dead!

I was horrified.

The hole in my face. **Pictures exclusive to Take 5.**
The hole in my face. Pictures exclusive to Take 5.

Straight away, I met with various specialists and plastic surgeons, discussing how they would remove the cancer from my face with minimal damage.

Reg squeezed my hand as the doc talked me through it.

'To get it all, we'll have to remove your left eye,' one specialist warned.

I gasped.

I couldn't imagine living with just one eye, but what was the alternative? I valued my life too much to risk losing it now.

'Just do what you have to,' I nodded, swallowing a lump.

Reg and our son Garry were there as I was wheeled off to the operating theatre.

'Love you, Mum,' Garry said with worry in his eyes.

When I groggily came to, it was three days later.

Reg's eyes lit up as I looked over at him.

'We weren't sure you were coming back,' he smiled.

My head and half my face was bandaged, as well as my wrist, where the surgeon had taken skin grafts. They had discovered the cancer was just 1cm from my brain and was quickly spreading to the right side of my face.

'We think we got it all, but there's a long road ahead,' the doctor said.

I'd have more cosmetic surgery and countless rounds of radiation.

When the bandages were removed and I looked in the mirror for the first time, I was disgusted. The graft was a chunk of flesh across the left side of my face, like a pirate's eye patch.

'You're as beautiful as ever,' Reg told me.

But I knew that simply wasn't true.

'I don't want the grandkids seeing their nanna like this,' I told him.

They lived a few hours away, so we kept in touch through phone calls instead.

The pain meant I couldn't chew properly, so I lived off soups and yoghurt. Naturally, the weight fell off me.

Garry, Sophie, me and Ben. **Pictures exclusive to Take 5.**
Garry, Sophie, me and Ben. Pictures exclusive to Take 5.

Reg looked after me at home, but then I started feeling horrible things beneath the new skin on my face. It was like a thousand creepy-crawlies scuttling around under there.

'I can't stand it,' I whinged to my specialist, shuddering.

They worked out it was nerve endings moving in my face, making it feel like hundreds of bugs. It lasted months!

Then, the flesh of the graft started dying and I was left with a giant, gaping hole in my face.

'I'm revolting,' I cried, but Reg assured me that I looked fine. It must've been exhausting for him to keep hiding his reaction, but I was very grateful he did.

'Thanks for lying to me, love,' I smiled, tapping his hand.

A surgeon did another graft, stretching skin from my forehead so it could fit over the area.

That one covered most of the hole, but I still had a noticeably large nostril on my left side. My surgeon suggested another op.

I refused. I'd gone through all this to save my life, it was time to start living it again.

'The way I am is the way I'll stay,' I decided.

My left eye had to be removed. **Pictures exclusive to Take 5.**
My left eye had to be removed. Pictures exclusive to Take 5.

It was hard going out in public at first. Strangers stared at me and muttered things under their breath.

I learnt to shake off. They had no idea what I'd been through.

My friends and family were just incredible.

It took three years of recovery before I found the courage to return to bingo. The old crowd gave me the warmest welcome.

'We've been saving your seat, Jean,' one grinned.

My grandsons Edward, 25, and Ben, 22, barely even reacted when they saw me for the first time since the surgery.

'I'm still the same old Nanna,' I promised, hugging them.

Now I have two adorable great-granddaughters- Sophie, one, and Allana, seven weeks. They'll never know what I looked like before, but if I hadn't gone through it, I wouldn't be here to cuddle them and watch them grow up.

I might have lost half my face, but I've got a very big heart, and it's full of love.

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