Mum says 'miracle' surgeons rebuilt her face with parts of her wrist after cancer battle
Donna-Marie Cullen (36) underwent an eight-hour operation where muscle, skin and blood vessels from her wrist were used to partially rebuild her face
A young mum who had her face reconstructed with parts of her wrist after a tumour was removed from her temple says miracles do happen.
Mum-of-two Donna-Marie Cullen (36) underwent an eight-hour operation where muscle, skin and blood vessels from her wrist were used to partially rebuild her face after a golf-ball size tumour was removed from her temple region.
The Lucan woman, who is the face of this year's Daffodil Day, was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare type of cancer, in September 2020 - a full year after discovering a lump on her head.
Having complained of headaches, the doting mum only noticed a large growth on her forehead when she snapped a selfie, just seven weeks after she gave birth to her youngest son, Max.
"I took a picture of Max and Colin and I showed it to Colin after and said, 'I think I look quite gaunt.' He saw the picture and put his hand to my face and said, 'Donna, there is a lump on your head.'
"I had been to the GP complaining about headaches and they thought it was the side effect of the epidural.
"I used to wear my hair in a side parting so it covered my temple so I never even noticed it before that."
The beauty and wellness PR, who is mum to Sean (12) and two-year-old Max, was sent for invasive tests but hopes of finding a diagnosis ground to a halt when Covid-19 hit.
"I was having online consultations and they were just baffled. They were convinced it was nothing sinister because of the texture of the tumour because it wasn't completely solid.
One year later, following a successful biopsy, the Dubliner was dealt an earth-shattering diagnosis.
"The cancer I had was so rare, when the consultant said, 'you have sarcoma,' I had to stop him and ask him, 'is that cancer?'
"I went into survival mode the minute I was told it was cancer. I looked at Colin and he just started crying. I didn't cry, I just said 'what's next, how do we get rid of this?' The sheer determination and the stubbornness to get through this and be with my boys got me through."
Donna-Marie, who nicknamed her tumour Egor, immediately began 17 sessions of chemotherapy. The cancer was so aggressive that she had to endure five days of continuous infusions every month.
"The tumour was around my temple area so it was close to my ear, it was touching my cheekbone, my eye socket and against my temple bone and close to the surface skin. It was so complex nobody seemed to want to take it on. My oncologist was incredible and never stopped and talked about my case globally to secure a surgeon."
Two surgeons from Beaumont Hospital agreed to carry out the surgery after consulting with a North American sarcoma specialist team.
On February 9, 2021, Donna-Marie underwent an eight-hour surgery where her entire tumour was removed.
"In order to have clear margins they removed so much of my face and were unable to pull the skin back together again so they took skin, muscle and blood vessels from my wrist - they basically put my wrist on my head. They removed my cheekbone and shaved it down and screwed it back in.
"They had to remove part of my jaw and all the muscles on the side of my face. It was a miracle surgery they thought could never be done; the team saved my life.
"I didn't know if I was ever going to have a functioning face again, or what state my body was going to be in. I was so weak, I didn't even know if I was going to survive the surgery. But the consultants reassured Colin that I would make it."
Spending nine months learning how to talk and chew again, Donna-Marie is now facing into four more reconstructive surgeries.
Donna-Marie says the support of The Irish Cancer Society throughout her diagnosis, treatment and recovery gave her strength in her darkest times.
"I would call the night nurse and the helpline and they always knew how to talk to me. They were always there regardless of the time of day.
"The Irish Cancer Society also funds cancer research, sarcoma is so rare I don't think I would be the other side of cancer if it wasn't for their funding. The entire family has also engaged in their counselling services.
"Cancer is devastating but Daffodil Day does so much to help so many people. I have so much to thank them for."
Daffodil Day is on Friday, March 25. Please, take back from cancer today by donating at cancer.ie/daffodilday. Anyone with concerns or questions about cancer can freephone: (1800) 200-700.
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