No known cause
Raffaela was diagnosed with oral cancer at the end of 2017 at the age of 84. There was no known cause for her diagnosis as she did not have a history of smoking or drinking.
Oral cancer is where a tumour develops in a part of the mouth and is the sixth most common cancer in the world. Most oral cancers are caused by tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption or ultraviolet (UV) light exposure.
But like Raffaela, not everyone who gets oral cancer has a history of smoking or excessive drinking and researchers are still not clear on why.
A very popular patient
The main treatment for oral cancer is surgery, but this was not a good option for Raffaela at her age. The surgery to remove the cancerous tissue is difficult with many side effects, such as difficulty speaking, breathing, eating, and drinking.
Instead, her care team opted for radiotherapy treatment, where beams of radiation are directed at the cancerous cells. Raffaela responded well to this treatment but unfortunately the cancer returned after six months. It had now moved into her neck.
At this point, doctors tried a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy but the complications were difficult for Raffaela to manage.
It became clear that continued treatment would do little to prevent further spread so she opted to go into palliative care. She was an inpatient at St Bartholomew’s Hospital for 5 months, and in that time she became a very popular patient with the staff. When she left the hospital, a huge crowd of staff gathered to say their goodbyes.
Head and Neck Clinical Nurse Specialist Manny Miller said: “Raffaela was a very dignified lady, showing the utmost respect and appreciation of everyone’s effort and care. She coped with the effects of her treatment gracefully. We had many chats about her life and beloved family and about my family too. She may have been a slight lady but her strength was huge and this is a testament to her wonderful character.”
Remembering her strength and grace
Rafaella sadly passed away just before Christmas 2021. Her two children, Luisa and David, said Raffaela was a very resilient woman and had been her whole life. They said that after her diagnosis, she never felt sorry for herself, never complained and never wanted to upset anyone.
“We remember our mum’s strength and grace. She was a very brave lady who always showed courage in the midst of her fear through her journey. Mum gave the best of herself to everyone and was forever thankful for the care and support she received from the excellent team at Barts Hospital,” said Luisa.
Inspired to donate
Raffaela’s children decided to donate an incredible £20,000 to Barts Charity in her memory. Raffaela and her family were extremely touched by the excellent care she received while at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
David said: “There are not enough words to express our gratitude for everything the care team did for our dear mother and we are both happy knowing that our donation will make a difference by helping others in memory of our wonderful mother ‘Mamma Raffaela’.”
Their donation will support the Barts Centre for Squamous Cancer, a new centre of excellence funded with a £2.6m Barts Charity grant, dedicated to improving detection, treatment, and quality of life for patients with squamous cancer. Ninety percent of mouth cancers are classed as squamous cancers.
Luisa said: “This is very important to both of us and is what our mum would have wished too, knowing this will help other people with her similar diagnosis and therefore making it possible to receive the best medical treatments and care.”
Barts Centre for Squamous Cancer is located in east London, where there is a particularly high prevalence of squamous cancer of the mouth. As of now, there is little knowledge of which patients in east London are most at risk of developing squamous cancer.
We would like to thank the family for their generous donation. Raffaela’s legacy will help further research into how this cancer develops, and what can be done to prevent and treat this disease.