Like most other Aussie blokes of his era, Kyogle-raised truckie Richard Fleming, 51, spent most of his life out in the sun without ever giving the health ramifications a second thought.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the first issue from the UV damage surfaced for Fleming, a small pimple-like growth in the centre of his forehead.
After squeezing out the ‘gunk’, it disappeared for a while, but soon came back, prompting his partner Christine to send Fleming off to his GP for a closer look.
The GP ‘froze’ it off with liquid nitrogen spray, a common practice, but it returned again soon after, prompting Fleming to get both the forehead ‘growth’ and a ‘scratch’ that had also appeared around the same time on his temple cut out.
Luckily, both skin lesions turned out to be benign, and Armidale-based Fleming had no further issues until a toothache flared on the right-hand side of his mouth in 2020.
But two weeks after he had that troublesome tooth extracted a small lump appeared on the side of his cheek.
It also disappeared for a couple of weeks, but then resurfaced and began to grow, sparking a barrage of tests that resulted in an urgent referral to leading Sydney ear, nose and throat specialist surgeon Professor Carsten Palme.
“He just looked at all the tests and said it’s bad, we’ve got to do something about it,” recalled Fleming.
Within two weeks the cancerous lump grew from the size of a golf ball to a tennis ball – 32mm to 54mm – and Fleming was fast-tracked into theatre at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, a cancer hospital in Camperdown in January 2021.
In no pain or discomfort, remarkably Fleming had been able to carry on driving his usual run from Brisbane to Sydney for Warwick-based Wickham Freight Lines in his Kenworth 659 until three days before he went under the knife.
“When I initially got the ones taken out on my forehead and temple they said they could come back somewhere else on your body,” added Fleming.
“They say they need something to trigger it off and pulling this tooth has knocked my immune system and this had just gone ahead leaps and bounds.”
It took Palme and his team almost 13 hours to remove the tumour and painstakingly reconstruct Fleming’s face using skin, muscle and tissue from his kneecap to his hip.
Amazingly, the next day he was able to line up for pork chops and roast veges from his hospital bed, and a couple of days later, Fleming was already walking two kilometres a day.
He was back home 10 days later with Christine, daughter Amie, and granddaughter Annie, 4, although still faced a daunting six weeks of radiation in Lismore.
“I still haven’t recovered from that 100 per cent, and that’s over a year ago,” he said.
Fleming still can’t eat salty foods, or anything spicy because the radiation took layers off the top of his tongue and ulcerated his throat.
He also has no saliva gland left in the right-hand side of his mouth – Fleming is always chewing on a lolly to keep moisture in his mouth – and is restricted on how wide he can now open his mouth, meaning something as simple as yawning is still off the table.
“Other than that, when I drive along, I have to massage the side of my face to manipulate it a bit,” said Fleming, who was been clocking up 6000km a week for Wickhams for more than a year now since the operation.
So far, the prognosis from doctors is all positive. He still sees his Sydney surgeon every three months and is booked to return to the Lismore clinic every year for check-ups.
Mentally, his family, mates and support from Wickhams, in particular the backing of managing director Graham Keogh, have all played their part in his recovery, said Fleming who is also drawing strength from the chance to help others by sharing his inspiring story.
He appeared on a Spotlight skin cancer special on Channel 7 recently, alongside host Deborah Hutton – they share the same surgeon – and is eager to spread a similar message to truckies.
“Just bloody look after yourselves, and if you’ve got something that looks out of place, go get it checked – put a hat on, slap on some sunscreen, get your windows tinted,” urged Fleming.
“I was driving along today and all I could see was blokes with the window down and their arm hanging out the window.
“I have the left-hand window down. That’s probably what saved me.
“My brother said to me years ago, ‘Never drive with the right window down’, and I said, why not? ‘Because I’m deaf in the right ear’.
“So, if I hadn’t have listened to him, I’d probably be worse than what I am.”