A father-of-five army veteran who was fit and healthy was left in shock when he was told he had stage three cancer. It was initially thought to just be a cyst after Lee Webb battled to be seen by a GP during pandemic pressures.
Lee, 52 and from Bedford, was diagnosed with tongue, tonsil and lymph node cancer in February this year after first noticing symptoms last summer. It set him on a treatment journey that would see him lose 15kg in weight as well as having to learn how to do basic things like eat and drink again.
Lee told BedfordshireLive: “I knew there was something wrong, but when you hear the diagnosis, you automatically think you will die in the next week or so. That’s what goes through your mind.
"The doctor said it’s curative, (but) I missed the word. My brain didn't take that into consideration, I thought 'I will die'. I had a 75% chance of survival."
It was after a bout of Covid in the summer of 2021 that Lee thought he then had tonsillitis. But when the infection came back, he knew something more was wrong. But he had to fight for his diagnosis as doctors worked under pandemic pressures.
Lee said: “I had internal bleeds and I was taken to the hospital for that. It was my first time in the ambulance, first time touching base with the NHS after many, many, years. They told me to visit the ear, nose and throat department, but I never received an appointment letter because it went to my old address. That just shows how long I didn’t see doctors.
“A few months later, around October, I had a second bout of what I thought was tonsillitis, but also I noticed a lump in my neck. That’s when I started being concerned.”
The first lump appeared in October 2021, but Lee wasn't diagnosed until the following February due to the NHS still struggling with the effects of the pandemic. GP appointments were still limited and simply getting in touch was difficult in itself.
“For over a month I tried to make an appointment with the GP," Lee said. "All I heard was that the lines were broken - keep trying.
“In January, I thought it was a third bout of this thing, but the lump was getting bigger. I decided to go to the GP, but they refused to let me in."
Lee was told he needed to take a PCR test and wait another three days for a possible appointment.
“But how was I supposed to wait if my throat was in pain? I stood in the car park of my local GP and refused to leave. Eventually they checked me outside of the car park, when the practice nurse came.
"She noticed I couldn't open my mouth, when normally you can open it for about 30mm - the same as three or four fingers - she could barely put one in. The next thing she said 'you need to see a doctor the next day', and I did.
“But after the blood tests came out negative, around two weeks after I went to the nose, ear and tongue department. I said 'my GP thinks it is a cyst' and then I just heard 'it’s something more serious'."
From that visit, Lee had to go through several biopsies and an MRI scan. After confirmation of stage three tongue, tonsils and lymph nodes cancer, a patient undergoes treatment which involves two chemo sessions and 30 radiotherapy sessions.
Despite his healthy lifestyle, it was the HPV virus in his system that caused the cancer. The virus is commonly known for causing cervical cancer in women, but it can also cause cancer in the neck area for both men and women.
Lee said: "I completed my treatment at the beginning of May 2022. A week before my treatment, after my second session of chemo, I became ill, which resulted in me losing some 15kg of weight for which I was admitted to hospital for being underweight.
"I’ve had to learn how to drink and eat again and have only been eating again since the middle of June and still some 10kg from where my weight was pre-cancer. Imagine being punched in the jaw - that’s how I feel most of the days. There is loads of fatigue."
Lee has been supported by his friends and family and even though mentally he admits he's doing well, physically he's still trying to get back to how he was. To support his journey in getting stronger and healthier he decided to do 100-mile cycles between the four hospitals where he was treated.
On Wednesday, July 20, Lee was due to start at 9am from Bedford hospital to cycle to Luton & Dunstable Hospital, Stevenage Hospital and finally to Mount Vernon Cancer Centre just outside Rickmansworth. All of those four hospitals represent steps of his battle with cancer.
Bedford hospital is where he has been diagnosed, followed by Luton & Dunstable hospital where he had to have his teeth removed and Stevenage Hospital were he had his feeding tube installed. Lee said: "Radiotherapy affects bone structure around the mouth, so doctors need to be able to get back in there if they need to do some treatment. They removed two back teeth, but also those that looked like they will need to come out because of the treatment.
"Then I needed a feeding tube. In Stevenage hospital they have a new way to insert those. You need one, because around four weeks into your treatment, you can't swallow anything. Luckily I stopped using it around four weeks ago, I started learning how to eat again on my own."
The reason behind Lee's cycle is not only to get back to his previous shape, but he also wants to make people aware about the support that is available. Lee is going to read to other patients during his stops at each of the hospitals while raising money for Macmillan.
Unfortunately his battle with cancer is not over yet. On July 26 Lee will attend a PET scan. It will show the effects of the treatment and will find out if he won his fight. Lee said: "Until end of the month I will try to stay positive and slowly go back to my old habits.
"I know I will be tired and fatigued after the cycle, but it will have a positive impact on my mental health. I need to focus my mind on something else until PET.
"It happened the same recently when I did the Fan Dance in Wales. Candidates trying to get into the United Kingdom's Special Forces (SAS) are allowed to complete the route in four hours and 10 minutes. I completed it in over six hours, so I wasn't even close, but the satisfaction and happiness I felt after was amazing.
"I'm looking forward to that 100-mile cycle, no matter what kind of weather there is, I don't mind. Even if I had to cycle in 40C, that's fine. The other day I went for a 30-mile cycle in the heat. I am used to it, as I have done bike rides in Spain where temperatures come close to this."