Kelly O'Sullivan was no stranger to head and neck cancer. Her stepfather battled with the disease, but her diagnosis, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, still came as a shock.

Kelly was fit, active and very social with two grown-up children and a four year old who kept her on her toes. Following a dental check, a lesion was found in her inner cheek lining. After having this closely monitored for around three years, an epic ulcer developed in her mouth and then her tongue.

Kelly’s regular specialist appointment was cancelled because of COVID but when her pain became so bad, she was ordered to come into the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Initially, Kelly thought it would just require scraping and she would be given some painkillers, but realised the worst when she was told she had Stage four cancer requiring a full jaw reconstruction.

Kelly is bubbly, vivacious and a fighter. Her first reaction was “All right, its game on. Let’s go”. She was frightened but more determined to fight this than let it overcome her.

Kelly and her husband Rory worried about how to tell their son Winton.

“Because it was through COVID, we had this extra thing of him watching or hearing news and COVID and this and the other, so when we had the chat about mom being sick, he said, 'Oh, have you got COVID, Mum?' And I said, 'No, I have cancer.' He said, 'Oh, phew.' He was relieved. Cancer was the better option to COVID”.

Life became a whirlwind after that with never-ending appointments, a 14-hour lifesaving surgery to rebuild her jaw and acquiring an infection just seven days later. COVID meant that her family couldn’t visit so Kelly had to find other ways to communicate during her 20-day stay in hospital.

“I couldn’t talk for 8 or 9 days after surgery which was especially heartbreaking for Winton. Instead, I made a series of videos that Rory played to Winton every morning and every night – he would play them over and over again. He also gave me his little Paw Patrol teddy to look after and that teddy became the star of the videos. I was secretly happy that we couldn’t see each other because of COVID - having to say goodbye every day would have been devastating. FaceTime was much easier, not chatting at all but watching the same programs together”.

Kelly credits her recovery to the fabulous nurses who became like a surrogate family to her, the amazing surgeons and more recently, the head and neck support group at The RMH who have become lifelong friends.

She is also eternally grateful to her community of Gembrook, located just outside Melbourne, as well as her family and friends who rallied around her in support.

Kelly’s message today is "Go to the dentist. If you've got dentures or teeth or whatever, go and get a mouth check. I had a client say to me, 'Oh, I don't need to go to the dentist. I don't have any teeth.' And I'm like, “You've got cheeks and you've got lining and that can grow things really quickly”

“Put yourself first so you can stay around for the rest of your family and friends, or whoever. Because it's unbelievable. One little thing, it just changes your life so much”.

“I owe my life to the amazing staff at RMH, going dry for July is the very least I can do to raise much-needed funds and awareness for this terrible illness. While my fight is far from over, I am able to find the strength to continue each and every day surrounded by so much love and support”.

Support Kelly’s Dry July campaign or become a member of Kelly’s Cancer Warriors. All funds raised support patient care at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Mobile Stroke Unit with Ambulance Victoria paramedic and the RMH Stroke team
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