A LIFE STOPPED MID-FLIGHT
Hayley Eldridge is married to the love of her life, has “the most adorable fur baby in the world” and loved her job as a cabin manager for an Australian airline. At just 27 Hayley was diagnosed with Sinonasal Adenocarcinoma, an extremely rare and very aggressive type of head and neck cancer. The diagnosis changed her life.
In August 2018 Hayley started getting a blocked feeling behind her nose which felt just like a bout of sinusitis. After a few days, she found the discomfort was affecting her work performance, so sought medical advice immediately. Over the next two months she saw four different GP’s multiple times. As her symptoms were not subsiding, she was sent for a CT scan and later a MRI. It was suspected she just had blocked sinuses, but after the MRI she began losing her vision, experiencing constant nose bleeds and was crippled in pain. Perhaps due to the rarity of her cancer she was misdiagnosed until eventually meeting Dr Yi Chen Zhao, a Head and Neck Cancer Surgeon, at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in October 2018.
By this time, the vision in her right eye was nearly gone. Both her eyes felt so swollen it was like they were going to burst. Her boyfriend at the time and now husband, Joel, handed Dr Zhao her CT and MRI scans.
“I heard him clicking on his computer looking at them and then I heard him say ‘what’? And then silence, for what seemed a very long time.”
Underneath the polyp blocking her nasal passage was a tumour. Hayley was immediately scheduled for emergency surgery that evening. While being prepared for surgery she was told her eyesight would not recover and was faced with calling her parents in New Zealand asking them not to worry too much but to be on the first plane to Australia the next day.
A day later Hayley woke up for the first time in no pain, and she could see.
“The surgeons couldn’t believe my eyesight came back, that in itself was a miracle and something I don’t ever take for granted.” Unfortunately, however the rate in which her vision had deteriorated confirmed the aggression of the tumour, and she immediately had a biopsy.
Hayley was diagnosed with Sinonasal Adenocarcinoma. It is an extremely rare and very aggressive type of head and neck cancer. Placed on radiation and chemotherapy combined, she is openly and bravely chronicling her whole cancer journey and treatment on her Instagram page.
“The hardest part of my treatment was most definitely the radiation. It was absolutely brutal. It impacted my eyes as my tear ducts stopped working, it impacted my mouth as my saliva glands stopped working, it impacted my breathing as my nose was blocked and I couldn’t breathe through my mouth. I lost my sense of taste and smell permanently.”
This of course meant Hayley could no longer work as a flight attendant. The impact of her loss of senses, especially smell as it removes the possibility of recognising potential hazards while on a plane, and the physical effects of her treatment were just too much. Her tear ducts were either dry or constantly leaking, not being able to produce saliva meant opening her mouth for more than a second would hurt. Hayley also has permanent tinnitus and her vision is impaired.
Through all this Hayley has been cared for by Joel and her mother, when she could travel from New Zealand. She was treated at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the Royal Melbourne Hospital and talks highly of her team and her treatment.
“To be honest when I was first diagnosed, I completely shut down and isolated myself. I didn’t want to know anything about the cancer. I was too scared and overwhelmed to hear anything about it after hearing the words aggressive and rare.
“Having said that I felt very well informed and had access to a whole cancer care team including a dentist, dietitian, pharmacist, psychologist and of course my oncologists and surgeon.”
Hayley’s cancer recurred in September 2020 and this time round she has chosen to share her journey to help raise awareness and educate those facing treatment of head and neck cancer.
“I want people going through treatment to know that side effects may get worse before they get better. I also want people in the public to know that only you know your body and if you have any doubt or concerns SPEAK UP.
“I also want to raise awareness of head and neck cancer and encourage people to get behind charities like Head and Neck Cancer Australia and the Cancer Council to make sure people are diagnosed early to give them the best possible outcome.”
Hayley’s diagnosis caused a strain on her relationships with friends and family, some friendships have ended and she has missed out on important events like seeing friends get married. With the added stress of losing her job and income, as she is a New Zealand citizen, Hayley was also faced with travel restrictions due to the COVID pandemic.
“Having head and neck cancer has completely changed my perspective on life. All that matters in life is your health because without it you don’t have one. I always wanted a successful job, money in the bank, nice clothes and shoes, the newest technology and a nice car. Now all I want is good health and to be with the ones I love."
Thank you Hayley for sharing your story.
Hayley passed away on 24 July 2022. On behalf of Hayley’s husband Joel, parents and family and friends, you can make an in-memory donation here.