A mother-of-three who is battling an aggressive form of skin cancer which forced doctors to remove her nose – is hoping to fulfil her dream of marrying her partner.
When Julia Davey, from Weymouth Dorset, who celebrated her 40th birthday last week, first visited the doctor in April 2019, complaining of a persistent blocked nose, she never dreamed it would be anything serious.
But tests showed that she had squamous cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer which is usually low risk but in Julia’s case was very aggressive.
Since then, she has had a full rhinectomy – the complete surgical removal of her nose – and is now beginning immunotherapy, a form of treatment that encourages the immune system to attack cancer cells.
Defiant, she is refusing to let her harrowing ordeal dash her dreams of marrying her sales adviser partner Nick Stoodley, 44, in November.
Julia, who has two sons, Tom 16, and Joel, 12, from a previous relationship and a daughter, Eleanor, five, with Nick, said: ‘I feel like I’ve had my whole world tipped upside down this past year.
‘At the end of the day, my goal is to be a mum to my children and a wife to Nick, who proposed just before I started treatment. I will do anything to make that happen.
‘Though I haven’t been given a prognosis, I feel good in myself at the moment.
‘Doctors have told us to make the most of the good months ahead before the side-effects of treatment kick in.
‘Nick and I were hoping to get married in 2021, but we’ve decided to bring things forward. It will be an intimate celebration with our nearest and dearest.’
Previously fit and healthy, Julia lived the life of a ‘typical mum,’ juggling work with raising her children and enjoying regular family trips to the beach with her dogs – Border Collie cross, Emmy, seven, and Cocker Spaniel cross, Pepper, two.
Then, in April 2019, she noticed that her left nostril had been blocked for around two weeks.
To be on the safe side, she visited her GP, blissfully unaware that every aspect of her life was about to be turned upside down.
‘It felt like there was a big bogey up there that wouldn’t shift,’ she explained. ‘I thought it was a bit odd but wasn’t concerned.’
Told she probably had a nasal polyp – a painless growth in the nose that is not usually serious – Julia was referred to see an ear, nose and throat specialist at Dorset County Hospital, Dorchester.
During her appointment the following month, medics performed a nasal endoscopy – where a thin, flexible tube with a tiny built-in camera is inserted into the nose –which confirmed there was a blockage.
Three weeks later, on June 1, she had a two-hour operation to remove the growth.
‘I thought that was that,’ Julia said. ‘I was back to work the following Monday and thought nothing of it.’
But a week later, she received a call asking her to come to the hospital to discuss the results of a biopsy that had been carried out.
She continued: ‘I’m quite naive so when they asked me in, I thought it was just protocol.
‘I was so convinced it was nothing. I didn’t even take Nick along.’
Far from the routine appointment she expected, Julia was told that cancerous cells had been found on the nasal septum – the cartilage separating the left and right nostril.
It meant her growth was a dangerous tumour, not a harmless polyp.
‘It’s hard to describe how it feels hearing the words cancer – it was just utter disbelief,’ Julia said.
‘At that point they didn’t say what type of cancer, it was just “cancerous cells”.
‘I’m good at looking at things objectively and by the time I left I was very much of the mind frame, “I have cancer. We’ll fix it”.’
Returning home, Julia broke the news to Nick, but decided to hold off telling the children until she knew more about what would come next in terms of treatment.
The following month, July 2019, she returned to hospital to have her septum removed, in a bid to eradicate any leftover cancer cells.
‘It sounds like a big procedure, but you can live without a septum,’ she explained.
‘It’s not visible and it was meant to get rid of the cancer. That was all I cared about, getting the cancer gone.’
Waking up to be told the two-hour operation was a success, Julia was looking forward to putting her nightmare behind her.
But then, in August, she was hit by the same bunged up sensation in her left nostril.
Another nasal endoscopy in September found another tumour, which she had removed later that month.
Julia was told the cancerous cells were a result of squamous cell carcinoma – which, according to the NHS, is the second most common form of skin cancer.
There are around 29,000 new diagnoses in the UK a year.
Most cases usually appear as a scaly or crusty raised area of skin with a red, inflamed base on the head, ears, neck and back of the hands.
They are caused by changes in the DNA cells, such as a burn, which can grow rapidly if untreated.
The vast majority of SCCs are low-risk skin cancers and can be cured.
However, Julia’s case was aggressive and so drastic measures needed to be taken.
‘They basically told me the fact that a tumour had grown so quickly after the first growth was removed meant the cancer was incredibly aggressive,’ Julia explained.
‘They told me there was a real possibility they would have to remove my nose.
‘I asked the doctor if it was anything to do with sun damage, as it was a form of skin cancer, and they told me that had nothing to do with it. The cancerous cells had formed internally.
‘It had seemed manageable up until then – but it all changed. I realised I had a bigger battle on my hands than I’d thought.
‘I’m not vain at all but your nose is so prominent. It was just devastating.
‘Nick was with me when I got the news. I don’t know how I’d have survived all this without him.’
Doctors agreed that, in a bid to save her nose, they would first see how Julia’s body responded to chemotherapy.
Before she could begin the six-week chemo course in September, she faced the harrowing task of telling her children what had been going on.
‘I was very honest and told them, “Mummy has cancer in the nose and the doctors are trying to fix it”,’ she said.
‘Obviously Eleanor understood a lot less from that than the boys, but they’ve all been kept in the loop since then.’
Enjoying as much family time as possible before starting chemotherapy, one particular day out with Nick will always stay with Julia.
‘We were on our favourite walk with the dogs on the coast,’ she continued.
‘Halfway through, Nick produced a ring from his back pocket and asked me to marry him.
‘It wasn’t the most extravagant of proposals, but it meant the world to me.
‘He’s my rock and I knew he’d carry on being my rock.
‘We were thinking of tying the knot on June 24, 2021 – to mark the seventh anniversary of when we met.
‘I’d gone into the phone shop where Nick worked looking for an upgrade and ended up walking out with him.’
By the end of her second dose of chemotherapy, Julia was left in agony as her nose tripled in size, and it became apparent the tumour was growing – not shrinking.
She continued: ‘It was like the worst headache and toothache you could possibly imagine, combined.
‘My head and nose felt like they were going to explode. The tumour was nearly coming out of my nose.’
With no other choice, Julia had a rhinectomy on November 18, 2019.
In a 14-hour operation at Southampton Hospital, surgeons removed her entire nose and top palate.
For 24 hours after coming round, she remained in intensive care – where she recalled being flooded with relief at no longer being in pain.
‘I certainly wasn’t prepared for the new reality of my life,’ she said. ‘But the first thing that crossed my mind was, ‘I’m not in pain anymore.’
‘To look at, it was like I’d been in a car accident, but I didn’t feel like my entire head was going to explode anymore.’
Whilst in hospital, Julia learnt how to dress her nasal cavity, and after two weeks, she was allowed home.
She said: ‘There’s a hole where my nose is. There’s no other way to describe it.
‘Only a few people have seen it – including Nick – but I haven’t shown the children. I don’t want them to have nightmares.
‘I told them that Mummy’s had her nose removed to make her better and that’s enough for them.
‘They’re making a prosthetic nose for me based on photographs I’ve provided for a specialist consultant but it’s not quite ready yet.’
After a much-needed quiet Christmas with family, Julia was told at the end of December that doctors had successfully removed all traces of the cancer in her nasal cavity.
She then had 30 sessions of gruelling radiotherapy, over six weeks, beginning in January.
She added: ‘The radiotherapy was hard, but it was the last slog before the day I could say I was cancer-free.’
But tragically, that day is yet to come for Julia, as an MRI scan at the end of April to monitor how she had responded to radiotherapy revealed another tumour had grown in her left maxilla – part of the jaw.
Last month, she was back on the operating table for surgery to remove both the growth and part of her jaw, before a follow-up scan found another tumour – this one too embedded in her nasal cavity to be removed.
‘Like every surgery before, I was happy to get the bad tissue out and move forward,’ she said. ‘But every time, they’d take a little and more would come back.
‘This time, they said if they removed anymore it would do more damage than good.
‘It’s too close to important nerves and my brain. They can’t go near it.’
As yet, Julia has not been given a prognosis, because she must wait to see how her body responds to immunotherapy.
Currently feeling relatively well, despite all that she is facing, she wants to make the most of what she is calling her ‘good months,’ in case the side-effects of the immunotherapy make her feel unwell, or she has to have any more invasive treatment.
So, at the insistence of her sister, full-time mother Angela, 35, who has set up a GoFundMe page to help cover costs, she has pulled forward her wedding to November this year.
Planning to get hitched in her hometown of Weymouth, in an old manor house, Julia said: ‘I don’t feel comfortable asking people for help, but Angela wouldn’t let up on the idea.
‘Any savings we had have covered the cost of me not working for a year.’
Taking each day as it comes, Julia refuses to believe immunotherapy will not work, saying it ‘simply is not an option.’
She concluded: ‘The immunotherapy should shut down the tumour and stop any further growth, making it manageable.
‘My drive is being a mum and I’ve got to stay positive. It can feel like I’m fighting against the tide, but I need this treatment to work.’
To donate to Julia’s GoFundMe, click here.