Mick’s cancer has sadly spread to his lungs and in 2017, he was told he had around three years to live (Picture: PA Real Life)
When Mick Stockwell noticed a painful peasized lump in his mouth, he thought it was just an abscess.
When the dad-of-two eventually went to the doctor, he was referred to the hospital and was eventually given the shocking news he had adeno cystic carcinoma – an aggressive cancer of the glandular tissues.
The 51-year-old went on to have his tongue cut out and rebuilt with a graft from his leg, as well as extensive radiotherapy.
Initially unable to eat, he had to slowly build up his ability to chew tiny mouthfuls until he could manage a full meal again, even getting rid of the family’s dining table because it was too heartbreaking to see.
Over the last eight years, his illness has had a toll on his wife-of-20-years, Linda, 54, a personal assistant, and daughters Jade, 26, a banking programme manager and Phoebe, 21, a nursery worker.
Upset at being able to eat when her dad couldn’t, Phoebe lost lots of weight and was hospitalised with a depressive episode in her teenage years. Now doing better, she is pregnant with a baby due in July this year.
The nightmare started for the family, of North Fambridge, Essex, in July 2013 but with a holiday on the cards in August, he planned to see his GP when he got back.
Mick managing to smile after major surgery in June 2016 (Picture: PA Real Life)
Mick in Menorca prior to his diagnosis in 2013 (Picture: PA Real Life)
Mick on his 50th birthday in 2020 (Picture: PA Real Life)
After looking at the lump, his doctor prescribed antibiotics and referred him for a scan at Southend University Hospital where, in the December, medics performed a biopsy on the growth.
Initially, his appointment was set for January but when the results came back, it was moved forward to New Year’s Eve and the couple were horrified to learn his tumour was malignant.
On February 4, 2014, Mick had a 10-hour operation at Broomfield Hospital in nearby Chelmsford, to remove the lump from beneath his tongue, on what is known as the lingual frenulum – a fold of mucus membrane under the centre of the organ.
The operation entailed dissecting and peeling back his neck for doctors to assess whether the cancer had spread.
Surgeons also removed lymph nodes and his salivary glands, as well as putting in a tracheotomy – a hole in his throat through which he could breathe.
Spending several days in intensive care, only able to communicate by writing on Phoebe’s whiteboard, he said: ‘After the surgery, I was numb everywhere – my mouth felt dead as a doornail.’
Mick after his cancer recurrence in 2016 (Picture: PA Real Life)
Mick in hospital in June 2016 (Picture: PA Real Life)
Once he was well enough to go home, he started to get back to normal life and had hospital scans every three months to check for any reoccurence.
Sadly in 2015, he developed pain in the same place.
He said: ‘It was pain like before and I just knew something was wrong.’
After an MRI in April 2016, Mick received devastating news on May 6 that the tumour had recurred and was of a significant size.
Mick said: ‘At that point, I couldn’t believe what I was being told was real.’
On June 1, he had another 12-hour operation where an area of his mouth was removed.
When his family went to see him, his wife said he look ‘Frankenstein’s monster,’ with a swollen head like a football and 100 staples in his neck and Phoebe was so shocked she physically collapsed.
Phoebe and Mick in hospital (Picture: PA Real Life)
But days later, he was told he needed another operation, this time to remove the tongue – a procedure called a glossectomy – and then attach tissue from his leg known as a ‘bolus’ or a fake tongue.
Doctors warned he may never eat or speak again, but when they installed a voice box, he pulled it out, insisting that he was going to speak – which he eventually did after around seven months.
Two weeks after surgery, he was discharged from hospital but had to come back and forth for treatment.
He needed nine teeth extracted before radiotherapy could start.
Then, following six weeks of intensive daily radiotherapy on his neck, he could only drink sips of water and was given prescription milkshakes through a feeding tube to his stomach – resulting in his weight plunging by 20kg.
‘That was probably the lowest point for me,’ Mick confessed.
‘I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do anything with my mouth. I was forcing myself to drink and desperately trying to be able to speak again.’
His skin graft started growing thick black leg hair inside his mouth – which to Mick and his family was horrific, but delighted doctors as it showed the tissue was living.
Eventually, he was able to have laser therapy for around a year to destroy it at the root.
Mick found occasions like Christmas torturous and hated seeing their dining table.
Mick having soup in a restaurant in March 2018 (Picture: PA Real Life)
Mick after radiotherapy with a thank you hamper for his nurses (Picture: PA Real Life)
Phoebe helping to feed her dad via a tube in June 2016 (Picture: PA Real Life)
‘I was just faced with tasteless supplements – and I would avoid mealtimes by taking the dogs for a walk,’ he said.
‘The table was a constant reminder of the meals I couldn’t have, so one day, I sold it to a mate.’
After dentists rebuilt his missing teeth, Mick slowly built up his strength, chewing tiny bits until he could finally swallow a plate of soft food – often taking up to an hour.
Linda gave up work to care for Mick and the family threw themselves into fundraising – with Phoebe, Jade and Linda taking part in sponsored races and skydives in aid of Macmillan Cancer Research and the Farleigh Hospice in Chelmsford.
Despite all the treatment, on July 28, 2017, Mick was told the cancer was now metastatic, and had spread to his lungs – meaning there was no more treatment and no hope of a cure.
He said: ‘We knew it was bad news when my consultant plastic surgeon burst into tears, telling us she was sorry to say it had spread to my lungs. My life expectancy then was about three years.’
Mick took medical retirement, cashed in his pension and focused on spending time with his family.
Dealing with Mick’s cancer journey has been hard on them all, but particularly Phoebe who was hospitalised with major depressive disorder weeks before her GCSEs.
Phoebe was hospitalised following a breakdown in May 2017 (Picture: PA Real Life)
Mick fly fishing on Loch Lomond in Scotland (Picture: PA Real Life)
Mick in front of Ben Nevis in Scotland (Picture: PA Real Life)
Mick on his dream fishing trip in Scotland in May 2021 (Picture: PA Real Life)
She went on to pass her exams with flying colours – even receiving the National Citizens’ Service (NCS) award through her school and winning third place in an Essex-wide poetry competition with an ode about her and her dad’s experiences.
Linda said: ‘Phoebe’s illness was brought on by the huge amount of stress.
‘She couldn’t walk. Mick helped her to relearn how to walk. She was drinking out of a baby beaker.
‘But she is better now. She is pregnant and we are due our first grandchild in July.’
In mid-May, they went on the two-week fishing holiday in Scotland funded by strangers.
Launching a GoFundMe page hoping to raise just under £2,000, when they raised almost £7,000, Linda was astonished.
She said: ‘We had an absolutely wonderful holiday and we are so grateful to everyone who donated on the Go Fund Me page. We cherished every single day and made the most of every moment.
‘We are planning a small garden event in the next few weeks, with tea, wine, beer and cakes for everyone who donated, so we can share our fantastic memories with them and show them how their kind, generous donations were spent.’
They are still raising money to help them make as many memories as possible this summer.
To donate to the page, visit: Please help Mick fulfil his bucket list dream, organised by Linda Stockwell
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