Detail in old birthday photo leads to heartbreaking diagnosis

When looking at pictures from her 21st birthday, Brittany Coles could never have imagined how a small detail in a happy snap would lead to a shock diagnosis that would change their family forever.

"Looking back on photos is what's actually really triggering," Ms Coles told Yahoo News Australia.

"[It's amazing] how much something can change in such a short time and be such a different person. You don't want to make this define his life but when you can't talk and eat properly or eat at all it's hard not to."

The family noticed the lump on Mr Coles' neck while looking at 21st photos. Source: Brittany Coles
The family noticed the lump on Mr Coles' neck while looking at 21st photos. Source: Brittany Coles

In April 2019, Melbourne local Andrew Coles was working as a logistics manager when he started feeling fatigued and complaining of a sore throat, as well as noticing a lump on the left-hand side of his neck.

Initially dismissed as a symptom of being run down, then 57-year-old continued to work until he almost passed out when driving Brittany to work one day.

At the hospital, doctors ran tests and discovered the lump in his neck was in fact a tumour; diagnosing him with stage four tonsil and tongue cancer, which is a form of throat cancer.

"[He] started radiation straight away," Ms Coles recalled. "He was told he'd have chemo and 'you'll be right you'll be done by December you go back to your normal life, it's all good'."

Andrew Coles and his daughter Brittany after he finished treatment for throat cancer in 2019.
Andrew Coles and his daughter Brittany after he finished treatment for throat cancer in 2019. Source: Brittany Coles

Radiation treatment lead to further complications

Mr Coles went through 35 sessions of radiation and chemotherapy to cure the throat cancer, completing treatment in December 2019.

However, a rare complication from the radiation treatment stalled his recovery.

Mr Coles was further diagnosed with a rare airways disease called Supraglottic Stenosis in July 2020, brought on as a result of radiation and robbing him of his ability to walk, swallow and talk.

Andrew Coles was diagnosed with a rare complication from radiation treatment in July 2020. Source: Brittany Coles
Andrew Coles was diagnosed with a rare complication from radiation treatment in July 2020. Source: Brittany Coles

"Because the radiation strength [and the delicate nature] of the skin around the neck and throat, it pretty much burnt the inside giving him this thing called stenosis," Ms Coles explained, saying for a "couple of months" his airways were just closing in on him.

"We had no idea, we just thought this was normal recovery [from] radiation," she continued.

"After the treatment there's no information, there's no support until you realise that there's something wrong."

Andrew Coles is hoping that further treatments will help him eat again someday. Source: Brittant Coles
Andrew Coles is hoping that further treatments will help him eat again someday. Source: Brittant Coles

He'll never be able to eat or talk properly again

Since Mr Coles' second devastating diagnosis, he's undergone several surgeries to clear the stenosis. He underwent a throat reconstruction in October 2021, which involves taking the skin from his left arm and turning it inside out.

"His airways holes are still tightening so [he'll] need constant surgeries to clear the stenosis," Ms Coles explained.

"He might have to have a full laryngectomy or the trackie (a tube in his throat for life), so he might never ever eat again."

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For Mr Coles, an avid cook and fan of Melbourne's food scene, this side effect was a particularly devastating blow to both himself and his daughter.

"I’ll forever cherish our coffee dates, travel adventures and eating dinner together, things we use to take for granted," Ms Coles said.

"He still cooks dinner every night [for mum and me] so he can smell the food — he says that's how he tastes."

Mr Coles was also diagnosed with skin cancer as a result of his radiation, which is another cost the family is struggling to pay for sine he's no longer able to work.

"My dad, who was once the loudest voice in the room, buffet lover and frequent traveller can only walk to the mailbox, has a PEG in his stomach for liquid food for past year and may never eat a steak or bacon sandwich (his favourite) ever again," Ms Coles said in a GoFundMe page to raise fund for her father's ongoing treatment.

"He is my biggest inspiration in life, and mum and I will always support him and be his rock — there is no one else in the world I can imagine who could endure the pain, hardships and ongoing fight for life like my dad can."

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