Symptoms that many may put down as signs of a head cold turned out to be the early stages of throat cancer for one Christchurch woman.

Cosette Calder, 42, went to her doctor when she had an ear ache, a lump in her throat, coughing, the taste of blood in her mouth, discomfort when swallowing and pain when yawning.

She was referred on to the ear, nose and throat specialist and tests confirmed she had early-stage throat cancer.

Calder was one of about 520 cases of head and neck cancer diagnosed in New Zealand each year. There are also about 200 cases of metastatic non-melanoma skin cancer of the head and neck diagnosed annually.


In Christchurch alone, between four and six new head and neck cancer patients were being seen each week. Around the world head and neck cancers affected about 500,000 people and caused 200,000 deaths annually.

This Thursday is World Head and Neck Cancer Day and Calder wanted to warn others the symptoms were not always severe.

"I was shocked and upset. However I was thankful that I had an early diagnosis, as this gave me the best chance at being cured and leading a healthy normal life after treatment," Calder said.

Cosette Calder underwent gruelling treatment for throat cancer. Photo/Supplied
Cosette Calder underwent gruelling treatment for throat cancer. Photo/Supplied

Calder's treatment was long and hard.

She had a biopsy on the tumour in her throat and then had a feeding tube inserted - for two months during and after treatment it was the only way she could be fed.

For six weeks she underwent an intensive combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Before this began she had a plastic mask made of her face and shoulders, which she would wear during radiation treatment. This mask would be placed over her head and attached to the table she lay on to keep her in the right position during the treatment.

"This was the single hardest part of facing the treatment."


Two years on Calder has been cleared of cancer.

"I feel happy and healthy again, but it was a gruelling experience. I have my life back and I and enjoy seeing my 7-year-old son passing his milestones. I am grateful for my second chance."

Christchurch Hospital head and neck surgeon Dr Robert Allison said head and neck cancers often went undetected because many people did not recognise the early warning signs and symptoms.

Since these cancers occurred in a range of sites, they could cause a range of different symptoms including an ulcer on the tongue, a one-sided sore throat, a husky or hoarse voice, a painless lump in the neck, swallowing problems or changes to your skin in your face and neck area.

Allison said some types of head and neck cancer were becoming more common, particularly cancer of the throat (oropharynx) and the thyroid gland.

Cosette Calder having radiation treatment for throat cancer. A plastic mask of her face was made to make sure she didn't move. Photo/Supplied
Cosette Calder having radiation treatment for throat cancer. A plastic mask of her face was made to make sure she didn't move. Photo/Supplied

Treatment could involve major surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy and could have an impact on a person's appearance and a significant effect on a patient's ability to eat, swallow and talk.


"Many patients we treat have advanced cancer, which means treatment is more complex with a lower chance of treatment success. Even if the cancer is successfully treated, it can still have a major effect on a patient's quality of life," Allison said.

"If general practice teams and members of the public were more aware of the early signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer, then we would see patients with less advanced symptoms and consequently a better rate of treatment success."

About head and neck cancer
• Smoking and drinking have historically been the main causes.
• Cancers of the throat are increasing due to the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Medical professionals are hopeful the recent introduction of universal immunisation with Gardasil, will mean this will become less common in future years.
• Symptoms: a lump in your neck, change in your voice, a growth in your mouth, swallowing problems, changes in your skin.