An ex-dental nurse who thought her toothache was because of an abscess but was told aggressive cancer was eating her jaw has just tied-the-knot nine years after being given just five years to live.
Enjoying Christmas with her new husband, Barry Weeks, 51, and her daughter Victoria, 21, who is studying psychology at university, was another victory for Christine Palfrey, 42, who refuses to give in to cancer despite gruelling surgery, which has entailed removing part of her jawbone, tongue and some teeth – then rebuilding her face and mouth.
Following successful treatment, which has seen her outlive her prognosis by several years, despite her cancer being “incurable,” Christine, of Bampton, Oxfordshire, sees it as a “bump in the road” and celebrates every day, saying: “I am absolutely determined to live life to the full.”
Still basking in the warm glow of her recent wedding on November 27, 2021, at a fairy-tale Welsh castle, with 54 guests and Victoria, her daughter from her first marriage, as her bridesmaid, Christine still finds her diagnosis shocking.
But, especially after finding love again with Barry, a technical director, who she met at the IT hosting company where she works as a compliance specialist, she is now looking to the future, rather than dwelling on her disease – even though she has had secondary cancer cells removed from her lungs since her original diagnosis.
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 base line is that I am not cured but I have been successfully treated.”
A big exercise fan when she first experienced pain in her jaw in December 2012, Christine went to the gym every morning and evening after work, ran in her lunch breaks and walked her two dogs.
But, essentially living alone, as Victoria was at boarding school and her then husband – her daughter’s dad – was in the military and away on a tour of Afghanistan, food was not a priority and she was often surviving on a bowl of cereal a day.
“I was working long hours and feeling tired all the time, but I just pushed through,” she said.
“I didn’t have the best diet and was exercising more than I was eating, so I thought that was why I was tired.”
Then, one Sunday in early December 2012, while her first husband was home on leave for a week, Christine woke with an excruciating toothache in her left lower jaw.
“I’m an ex dental nurse, so I thought it couldn’t be my wisdom teeth because I was in my thirties,” she said.
“As I was on my way to see a dentist on that same day for an emergency appointment, 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.
She said: “There was a silence in the room when he put up the X-rays.
“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.”
She continued: “When I left, I thought, ‘He can’t think it’s an abscess, or he’d have given me antibiotics.’
“An abscess builds, so you don’t get sudden pain, but I still didn’t think for one second it would be cancer, because nobody in my family has had it.”
Christine was referred to Kathleen Fan, an Oral and Maxillofacial surgeon at Kings College Hospital in south east London, who went on to become the UK’s first woman professor in the field.
“I went off on my own to see her, because we’d just moved house, so I told my husband he didn’t need to come as I was really only going to see a dentist. He could stay home and make it all nice and Christmassy,” she said.
“Kathleen cut into the gum area and found there was a solid lump, so then we knew it wasn’t an abscess, which would have been filled with fluid.
“I said, ‘That doesn’t sound good,’ and she said, ‘It doesn’t right now, but whatever it is, it could be benign.’
“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.
“So, even though I hadn’t actually been told it was cancer at that point, it still hit me.
“When I got home I told my husband they’d found a solid lump and didn’t know what it was, but that I had my suspicions.
“He just said, ‘It can’t be. You don’t smoke and you don’t have any family history.’
“But, after Christmas, I got an email from Kathleen asking me to go in on January 1 and to make sure my husband was with me.
“For years, I’d had this strange feeling something big was going to happen to me in 2013 and people laughed when I told them that, but now I knew this was it.
“The doctor had the results of the biopsy and said, ‘This is quite a tough one to tell you. You have a very rare form of cancer. I’m afraid it’s not benign.’”
As Christine sat in the room feeling numb, with tears pouring down her face, helpfully, her husband went into military mode and just asked: “What happens now?”
On the same day, Christine was sent to another appointment not far away at the London Bridge Hospital, where a specialist booked her in for surgery.
Told she had Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC) which is not only extremely rare but also very aggressive and is usually found in the glands in the head and neck, he booked her in for surgery and explained what it would involve.
She said: “He explained the surgery, but told us he would need to keep some things back, so I could get through it all.
“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, which made me think, ‘What’s the point of doing the surgery?’”
But, a week later, Christine went ahead with a 12-hour operation, which involved talking a section of bone from her left hip to replace the section of her jawbone, which was cut away to remove the cancer.
The procedure meant she not only had to learn to talk again, but to walk, too.
It also meant the shape of her face changed and that she was left with a long and visible scar.
But, almost more daunting than the operation had been the task of sitting Victoria down and telling her 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. We all will. I will still be me and this is just a bump in the road, so we just need to focus on the future.’”
Claiming a tough childhood equipped her to fight most things, Christine says as soon as she could get out of her hospital bed and walk around after the operation, she did.
While she was only in hospital for 10 days, 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.
Currently cancer free, she has had 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.
Now having six monthly scans to monitor her condition, while Christine’s remarkable positivity is inspiring, she admits that cancer has taken its toll on her health and some of her relationships.
Sadly, her first marriage could not withstand the stress and ended in legal separation and then divorce in 2015, although she is on good terms with her first husband, who also re-married in 2021, and they co-parented Victoria very amicably.
And she was certainly not looking for love when she met Barry around 10 years ago, after he got lost and ended up going to the wrong office, leaving her thinking he was “a bit of an idiot.”
But when they were seated a few desks apart in a new office they soon bonded over a shared “silly sense of humour” and, as time passed, went on to fall in love.
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.
“Victoria liked him and approved, so when he proposed on my 42nd birthday, I said yes.”
Keen for her positive attitude to help fellow sufferers – especially in light of the shocking statistic that one in two people will get cancer in their lifetime – Christine is now keen to support Cancer Research UK’s Play Your Part campaign, which underlines how everyone has a part to play in the fight against the disease.
While she bravely lives in “the solution” and refuses to let cancer get the better of her, she admits that the emotional journey she has been on hit her with a wallop on her wedding day when she spied her big brother Tony Simpson, 45, a warehouse manager.
She said: “He was waiting to give me away.
“When I saw him filling up, I told him, ‘Don’t you dare!’ I was finding it very hard to keep my emotions in check, too!”
Describing her husband Barry as someone who knows how to bring “life” to a room, she is determined to share the same positivity going forwards.
She said: “I decided a long time ago that cancer would not be what I would live to.
“I am following a positive life force and now Barry has given me even more to look forward to in the future, too.”
Caroline Geraghty, a specialist cancer information nurse at Cancer Research UK, said: “Despite being diagnosed with an advanced adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC) eight years ago, requiring multiple surgeries and radiotherapy, it is wonderful to now see Christine celebrating her winter wedding.
“People like Christine, who support our Play Your Part campaign, continue to help Cancer Research UK find kinder and more effective treatments for cancer. Whether you chose to share your story, donate a monthly gift, take on a 5k run, volunteer your time, or work in research, we all have a part to play. And every part is important.
“Without our supporters we wouldn’t be able to carry on our life changing research. Research that has played a key part in the development of treatment such as radiotherapy, which now benefits more than 130,000 patients every year in the UK.”
To find out more about Cancer Research UK’s Play Your Part Campaign go to www.cancerresearchuk.org