Graphic: Rural mum's rare scare
When Anna Nunn woke up with an earache, little did she know she was in for the shock of her life.
The niggling pain was the least of her worries. Pregnant with her second child, Anna was busy raising her three year-old son Roy and working full-time with husband Justin on Wooltana Station, more than 500 kilometres north of Adelaide.
“My earache just happened to start on a day that the Royal Flying Doctor Service was conducting its regular fly-in primary health clinic," Anna said.
“You feel like it’s a bit of an inconvenience to ask about an earache. But as the RFDS always say, that’s what they’re there for – to help no matter how minor it seems.”
In Anna’s case, the earache wasn’t minor. Weeks later, she discovered a lump on her neck.
Following another RFDS check-up and a failed round of antibiotics, concerns grew. The Flying Doctor referred her for tests.
At 34 weeks pregnant, Anna was diagnosed with mucoepidermoid carcinoma – a very rare but potentially fatal cancer.
“I received a diagnosis at about 6:30 one evening. I was in Port Augusta at the time, away from my family and heavily pregnant,” she said.
“Nothing prepares you for someone actually telling you the words, ‘You have cancer’.”
Almost immediately, Anna called her RFDS Community Midwife Caitlyn, based in Port Augusta, who dropped everything to ensure she could accompany Anna to the hospital the following day.
“When you’ve just been diagnosed, replaying the words ‘I’ve got cancer’ is extremely hard,” she said.
“I didn’t have to do anything – the RFDS made the appointments for me and helped me organise where I had to be in Adelaide and when for delivering our baby and surgery to remove the tumour.
“I just went into autopilot. The most important thing was not me at that stage – it was making sure I had a healthy baby.”
Three weeks later, her daughter Ada was delivered early and 10 days later, Anna was back in hospital having surgery.
The cancer had spread towards her neck and right shoulder.
Surgery took four hours before Anna underwent six weeks of daily radiotherapy. What followed was a gut-wrenching wait, as routine follow-up scans showed that Anna’s lymph nodes on the opposite side of her neck were swollen.
But after four months of uncertainty, Anna was told she was in remission.
For the first time in months, she and her husband Justin could relax and enjoy their new chapter of life as a family of four.
“When you live remotely or eight hours from where you’re going to need help, it’s a big relocation to have to go through surgery and treatment,” Anna said.
“Hearing that I’ll have six to twelve months before another scan – there’s no better feeling.’’
Anna considers it no miracle that she is now cancer free.
Hundreds of kilometres from the nearest health service, Anna said she never would have initially made the trip to “get checked” for an earache.
Her close relationship with the RFDS team and the organisation’s regular fly-in primary health clinics meant she felt open and comfortable to talk about anything.
“With the RFDS, there’s such a continuity of care – not necessarily always the same doctor, but the next doctor coming on knows who you are, where you live and any prior issues you’ve had,” she said.
“When the plane flies in, your children know who it is, and they get to build up a relationship with the team as well.
“You do feel comfortable walking up those stairs and into the plane and saying, ‘I’ve got an earache’.”
As she looks beyond the horizon, her mantra is simple: “to make the most out of every day’’.
“When people say the RFDS has saved their life, they’re often talking about getting picked up in a situation that was life or death right then or there,” she said.
“The RFDS saved my life because they offered primary health care and it happened to be at the moment that I needed it. I walked into that plane and said I had an earache and the course of events that followed led to a cancer diagnosis, surgery, treatment, recovery and now hopefully a long remission.”
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