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Dad of two treated for head and neck cancer launches Stand Up To Cancer in Wales

A Cardiff dad-of-two who thanks research for saving for his life has been chosen to launch Stand Up To Cancer in Wales.

David Edwards, 57, from Old St Mellons, was diagnosed with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer a - type of head and neck cancer – on November 21, 2022.  

The chartered quantity surveyor found a small lump in his neck during a work meeting in October last year.  

He said: “I was absentmindedly stroking my chin and neck and felt this tiny bump. It was like a spot under the skin.”   

David didn’t give the lump much thought, and he and his wife, Helen, believed it was probably a swollen gland. However, as a few weeks passed, David noticed some doming of the skin when he turned his head to the side.   

Coincidentally, David had been suffering from a hernia and had made a GP appointment to get it checked.    

David said: “The lump appeared in the time between making the appointment and seeing my GP, but the appointment focussed on the hernia. Just before leaving, I mentioned the lump in passing.”    

David’s GP examined the lump and arranged an ultrasound at University Hospital of Wales (UHW). At that appointment, doctors also took a biopsy. Over the two weeks that followed, David was sent for further scans – a CT and an MRI.    

On November 21, 2022, David’s consultant explained that the tests showed that the lump in his neck was cancerous.   

David said: “At no point did it cross my mind that I might have cancer – not even when they did a biopsy.   
“I wasn’t in pain, I didn’t have a sore throat or cough – the classic symptoms of head and neck cancer – I felt fine!  

“I’m a middle-aged man who doesn’t really go to the doctor. Had it not been for my hernia, who knows what could’ve happened.”  

The tests showed that the lump was a secondary cancer, but they were yet to identify the origin of the primary cancer.  

David underwent an endoscopy and PET scan, and on December 1 he had surgery to remove his tonsils. The operation allowed access to biopsy a tumour they found at the junction between the tonsils and the back of the tongue. It was later confirmed that this was David’s primary cancer.    

“The tests also found that my cancer was caused by HPV – the human papilloma virus,” said David. “It was likely I’d unknowingly been living with it for 30 odd years, and something had triggered it.”  

David’s treatment began on December 16 with TORS (trans-oral robotic surgery) to remove the tumour. He also had a neck dissection to remove the lymph nodes on the right-hand side of his neck. He stayed in hospital for just under a week and returned home on December 21 in time for Christmas.    

Christmas, however, looked a little different and David was unable to enjoy the family’s traditional Christmas dinner. Instead, he tucked into scrambled egg on toast.   

He said: “It was a big mental hurdle – following the surgery I was unable to swallow properly. The operation affects your saliva glands making it hard to swallow. I also lost a lot of my sense of taste, and my appetite too.   
“It could take up to two years for my taste and appetite to fully settle. There’s no point taking me to a fancy restaurant – it’d be wasted on me. I wouldn’t get the same enjoyment as before,” said David.   

In January this year, David was invited to join the Stand Up To Cancer-funded PATHOS trial by its chief investigator Professor Mererid Evans. The trial is looking at less intensive treatment options, following surgery, for oropharyngeal cancer. It is for people whose cancers have tested positive for the Human papillomavirus.   

David said: “My decision to take part was easy – without trials how can we develop better treatments? Other people will have done something similar to facilitate my treatment, so I’m paying it forward by doing the same – to help improve experiences for people with oropharyngeal cancer in future.”   

As part of the trial, David underwent 30 days of daily radiotherapy, and two cycles of intravenous chemotherapy, which began on January 31 at Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff.   

David said: “The moment I walked into Velindre – a specialist cancer centre – it hit me that I really had cancer. I was knocked for six and it started to feel very real.”  

By the end of his treatment, David had lost two stone and was consuming a diet of Weetabix and Fresubin – a calorie dense meal replacement drink – to try to help him regain weight. He was determined to do what he could to avoid having a naso-gastric (NG) feeding tube or a PEG feeding tube.   

He has adapted to a new normal of smaller, more frequent meals, drinking lots of fluids to help him swallow, and he can no longer grow a beard as radiotherapy has damaged hair follicles on his face and neck. He is now cancer free and will have regular check-ups with the ENT (ear, nose and throat) team at UHW for the next five years.   

Now, David has been chosen to launch Stand Up To Cancer – a joint fundraising campaign from Cancer Research UK and Channel 4 – in Wales 

David with his family

David, who believes he owes his life to improved treatments, hopes his story will inspire people to stand together against the disease by raising money to help make the next cancer breakthrough happen.   

Alongside his wife – Helen – and sons Matt and Ben, David is calling on gym bunnies and sofa surfers alike to flex their fundraising muscles by getting sponsored to do 100 squats every day throughout November.  

Participants can adapt the challenge to suit their fitness level and complete their squats anytime, anywhere – all at once or throughout the day. By the end of the 30 days, they will have clocked-up a total of 3,000 squats to help power life-saving research.   

Alternatively, less energetic folk can choose to donate, raise money in their own way, or pick from a host of fun-filled ideas with a free fundraising pack available online for inspiration and support.   

With around 19,800 people diagnosed with cancer every year in Wales*, the need to make faster advances is clear.   

Stand Up To Cancer takes developments from the lab and accelerates them into new tests and treatments that could help save the lives of more people like David.   

The father of two said: “It was a huge shock when I heard the words ‘you have cancer’. I didn’t feel at all unwell. But it’s thanks to research that I’m still standing and can look forward to a future full of special moments with my loved ones. Cancer can affect anyone’s life, at any time, so we really have no choice other than to unite against it and help support the scientists to keep making new discoveries.” 

David continued: “Success stories like mine would not be possible without research into better and kinder treatments. That’s why I’m lending my heartfelt support to this vitally important campaign. Now is the moment for everyone across Wales to Stand Up To Cancer.”  

Every action big or small could make a difference. Stand Up To Cancer is helping to transform the landscape of cancer therapy. Since its launch in 2012, the campaign has raised more than £93 million, funding 64 clinical trials and research projects involving more than 13,000 cancer patients.  

This includes the UK-wide arm of the PATHOS trial which is run through the Centre for Clinical Trials Research at Cardiff University. Led by Professor Mererid Evans and, from Liverpool University, Professor Terry Jones, it hopes to find a way to improve people’s quality of life after treatment – without affecting the chance of their cancer returning. 

PATHOS is projected to be the largest ever clinical trial for head and neck cancer and recently reached the milestone of recruiting 1000 patients.  

Professor Mererid Evans said: “The number of people diagnosed with HPV-positive head and neck cancer has increased over the last 15 years which is why this research is so important.  

“Patients cured of their disease often live for several decades with the side-effects of their treatment which can have a severe impact on their quality of life.  

“Our work is made possible thanks to the generosity of Stand Up To Cancer supporters and we are incredibly grateful to them for helping to bring hope to people like David.  

“Whether they choose to donate or fundraise, we hope people across Wales will get involved in the campaign this autumn. If thousands of us take a stand we’ll speed up the progress of vital research – meaning more people live longer, better lives, free from the fear of cancer.” 
The Stand Up To Cancer campaign will continue throughout October, with a collection of special programming airing on Channel 4 and culminating in a night of live television on Friday 3rd November.  
To donate or fundraise visit su2c.org.uk