Marijo's Story

Marijo survived a facial tumour. She has had extensive facial reconstruction to repair her cheek and lip. Marijo's story is also available in Spanish: En Español

My name is Marijo. I am from Spain and I live in London. I’ve been happily married for 33 years to an amazing London man, and we're proud parents to two wonderful children, a son and daughter.

All was well in my life, until I was diagnosed with Squamous carcinoma in October 2019. This is my story – 4 years and 13 operations later.

My nightmare started in mid-August 2019. I was on holiday when I noticed a spot on my cheek. It was red, hard and painful and by early September I started to get shooting pains going up into my ear and my eye. I was so concerned how quickly the spot was growing that I went to the GP and A&E in London 3 times, but only prescribed antibiotics that didn’t do any good. Within those 6 weeks the spot grow rapidly. At night, I felt like I had 10 spiders inside my lip, eating me alive. I hardly slept for over a month.

On the 2nd of October 2019, I travelled to Spain. I went to A&E with my caring friend - and within an hour I was referred to a dermatologist. After scans and biopsies, I was told the devastating news that I had developed squamous carcinoma, an aggressive form of cancer. I needed to have an urgent operation to save my nose and face.

The news was very difficult to take, and even harder to tell my family. Even though I was in shock, I knew I had to be brave.

The first surgery was a big one. They removed the tumour from my face and replaced it with a section of my left wrist. They then took a section from my tummy to cover my wrist.

Although the surgery successfully removed the cancer, I lost most of my top lip, the corner of my nose, and part of my right cheek. Saving most of my nose and under the eye muscles is something I will always be grateful for. This lovely Spanish surgeon has been a rock for me and has done an amazing job during the whole process.

That initial reconstruction looked horrendous. It was shocking to see such a blob on my face, huge, hairy and a different colour. After few days, I got necrosis (where the tissue dies) and lost part of my new lip. I don’t wish that on my worst enemy!

My consultant & surgeon in Spain is brilliant and I trust him. I always felt very well-looked after by him and his team during the 8 interventions and many many appointments. Over the next year and a half – until June 2021 – I stayed in Spain with my lovely mum, brothers and friends, but away from my life in London, missing my husband, kids, home, extended family, friends, work, etc. I had more surgeries, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and even another bout of necrosis, which left another big hole on my top lip.

In between the cycles of operations and recovery, I was one of the few people that kept travelling back and forward, to see my family and friends in London. Airports were empty, shops closed – it was like a ghost town! The pandemic was oddly a blessing for me with the introduction of the mask, wearing it helped me avoid the stares and protect my scars from the sun.

I came back to London after almost two years in Spain in June 2021. I felt strange in my own house, and it took me 6 months to relax. I’ve had 5 more interventions since I came back to London and I have been blessed with my surgeon in London too, who performed a triple ABBE and other plastic surgery. He has a lovely manner and I trust him.

The Spanish team is still scanning every 6 months and supervising my progress.

When this ordeal started, I didn’t fully understand what the long-term result would be. After an operation in Aug 2022, the stitches came off and my lip was unattached, which really affected me. I had no energy, started having panic attacks and struggling with very debilitating anxiety. I have been told that I have PTSD as a result of what has happened in the last 4 years. I tried to be as normal as I could throughout, but I did struggle big time for few months.

I have found difficult the stares. I know people are curious, but some are very indiscreet.

I don’t really like seeing pictures of myself now and dread when people want to take group photos.

I have still difficulty eating, drinking, and speaking. I’m having speech therapy and weekly hands-on physiotherapy to improve the flexibility in my mouth and cheek.

Those are all big enough challenges on their own. But the biggest challenge has been coming to terms with how my face has changed because of so many interventions and operations. Hopefully I will accept my new face in the future, but even though I’m trying, I am not there yet.

Things are improving, slowly but surely. Until now, I just went with the flow of the rollercoaster and really felt in a different dimension than others – my life was mainly hospital appointments, operations, recovery. But now, my confidence is growing, I feel more together and my outings are less stressful. I feel stronger and upwards on the recovery.

I have been lucky enough to feel very supported by so many wonderful people during this process of ups and downs. My mum came with me to almost all appointments and treatments. I’ve been very lucky to have crossed paths with two incredible surgeons and two superb physios. I had tons of friends and family writing, calling and praying for me, from all religions in the UK, Spain and other countries, I feel very loved throughout. Special thanks to those who took me out and listened to my ups and downs. My workplace has also been so supportive and patient, I'm super grateful.

I’m taking life one day at the time, trying to get me and my confidence back. I dream of early retirement and travelling. I understood that life is not guaranteed, and you never know what’s around the corner.

I can’t put into words the impact of my scars on my life and the ripple effect on the lives of my family & friends.

I have lost my confidence and spark, as I’m so conscious of my visual difference, I feel in the last 4 years, part of me has disappeared. I’m trying to find myself again.

Now you know a bit of my story, what advice would I give to someone who finds themselves in the same position?

- Keep going, one day at the time.

- Physio makes a massive difference! It can make the scars more elastic and flexible. It’s worth every penny.

- Get out there. People will look, but it’s just curiosity. Smile back at them.

For me, a scar free future means hope. Hope that one day our children and grandchildren will not have to go through our experiences. I hope things are better for future generations.

There is only way – forward.

Thank you to Lottie, an ambassador from Scar Free, and Gary, a campaigner for Changing Faces, who inspired me to write this and to Amanda and Jenni for being so lovely.

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