A man who couldn’t get an NHS dentist appointment discovered he had an aggressive cancerous tumour, but only after forking out to go private.

Sixty-four-year-old Ray fears he may not be here today if he hadn’t paid for a private appointment which discovered the tumour in his jaw.

The retiree, from Durham, has since undergone a gruelling 16-hour surgery and month of radiotherapy to tackle the cancer.

Read more: Plea for support to help 'decaying' dental services improve amid huge backlog

He finally got to ring the bell marking the end of his treatment on Thursday (May 25) but faces a long road to recovery ahead.

He told the Echo: “If I hadn’t been able to afford to go private, I might not be here to tell my story.

“We’re lucky that we could afford to pay. Even if we’d had to save up over time it might have been too late.

“I couldn’t get an NHS appointment and was told by one practice they had an 800-long waiting list, but I could see them the next week if I paid £50 for a private appointment.

“I decided to pay it and when I went I had an x-ray done. That's when they found the tumour.”

The Northern Echo: Ray is hoping swelling in his face will soon reduce.Ray is hoping swelling in his face will soon reduce. (Image: STUART BOULTON)

He had previously had a tooth removed but swelling persisted and by Christmas he was struggling to eat some foods so sought the new appointment but was unable to get in at his previous practice.

Ray, a retired NHS worker, was then fast-tracked to hospital where he was diagnosed on January 26, and received life-saving surgery on February 14.

“When I asked the consultant how long it’d take to get back to normal, he said it would be a new normal,” he said.

His wife Lynn added: “I could tell it was serious because of how quickly they got him in.”

During the lengthy procedure which lasted until 3am surgeons cut into the right side of Ray’s face and removed part of his jaw to get to the cancerous tumour, which they then removed. Bone and muscle from his leg was then moved to his face to form a new jaw and a skin graft was done on his leg.

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He spent six weeks in hospital following the surgery before undergoing daily radiotherapy sessions up until Thursday last week to ensure the cancer had been eliminated.

Ray can now only eat or drink liquids and has had a special tube fitted to his stomach to provide the nutrients he needs.

“I can’t wait for the day I can have a pizza and a pint,” Ray said.

“What’s happened has happened. The consultant said he doesn’t know how much the swelling will go down but I’m hopeful. It’s already a lot smaller than it was as soon as I came out of hospital.

“Everyone at the hospital has been fantastic.

“It doesn’t seem like much, but some people wouldn’t be able to afford £50 for a private appointment and wouldn’t be as lucky as me. Getting an appointment quick could make all the difference.”

Durham MP Mary Kelly Foy raised Ray’s story at Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this month and led an adjournment debate on the state of NHS dentistry in Durham on Wednesday (May 24) in the House of Commons.

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The Labour MP has campaigned for the Government to acknowledge the current crisis gripping NHS dentistry, which has seen County Durham become described as a “dental desert” after research showed no practices in the county were accepting new NHS patients.

Ms Foy told the Echo: “Ray's story captures the harsh reality of living in a dental desert.

"More than 1,000 dentists have left the NHS since the pandemic - NHS dentistry now exists on paper but not in practice.

"If Ray had not been able to afford private treatment he might not be here today. It is morally wrong that anyone is put in that position - yet affordable dental care continues to decay before our eyes.

"Dentistry is integral to our national health, so it must be central to the NHS - not treated as an optional extra.

"Last week I led a parliamentary debate on the dental crisis in Durham - but the Government continue to ignore this national crisis and refuse to reform the discredited NHS dental contract.”