Wednesday, 6 Jul 2022

Man survives cancer and keeps his voice thanks to grim reaper tattoo

A grim reaper tattoo saw an unlikely twist of fate, after ironically it was used to save a man’s life.

Colin Reilly, 50, was diagnosed with a life-threatening tumour in his throat in 2020 following months of neck pain.

Skin featuring his grim reaper tattoo was eventually used to reconstruct his neck.

Before this, various treatments seemed to be successful in fighting the cancer – until it came back aggressively in March 2021.

Colin, from Bristol, was told that without surgery he would have just six months to live. As a result, he underwent life-saving surgery two months later.

His tongue and throat needed to be reconstructed, and there was a risk of him losing his voice forever.

However, the miracle surgery saved him – with help from his unusual ink. Skin was taken from his arm, which happened to be tattooed with a picture of the grim reaper.


He said: ‘I know I’ve been lucky – years ago I had a friend who died of throat cancer.

‘So when I was told there was nothing to worry about and the tumour was all gone, it was the best day of my life.

‘I thank god for the technology and surgical advancement which have given me this second chance.’

John Collin, the consultant who led on the reconstruction element of Colin’s surgery, added: ‘I’m sorry we spoilt Colin’s tattoo, but it’s always good to get one over on the grim reaper.’

Colin’s cancer journey began when he went for an endoscopy.

The worst was confirmed when it revealed a lump at the back of his tongue, which was confirmed to be a tumour in August that year.

He then underwent six weeks of radiotherapy between October and December.


In this time he needed the help of various specialists at the hospital – including speech and language therapists, dietitians and cancer charity Macmillan’s nurses.

Though things looked good for a while, once the cancer returned it was arranged for Colin to record a voice bank, so that if he needed to use a speech-generating communication device following the operation it would use his own voice.

In May 2021, Colin’s jaw bone was split to remove the tumour from the back of his throat.

Microscopic techniques were then used to reconstruct Colin’s tongue and voice box with arm tissue over a 12-hour operation.

One day into his intensive care unit stay, it transpired that he could still speak – to the shock of even his medical team.

His speech function was so good that after two weeks he had his tracheostomy taken out, which helped with his ability to breathe.

Therapist Dayna Freeney said: ‘The key thing was to empower him.


‘It really was a case of teamwork between ourselves as the medical team and Colin and Lisa [his wife] as a partnership.

‘They were the real driving force of Colin’s recovery.’

Colin’s recovery progressed so quickly he was discharged after just two and a half weeks – despite doctors’ expectations he’d be in for a month.

Twelve weeks after the operation, Colin underwent scans to assess whether the operation had managed to fully remove the tumour.

Colin said: ‘I was told that there was nothing to worry about and it was all out. It was the best day of my life.’

He now has regular speech therapy sessions and is focusing on healing.

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