January 28, 2022
Stage IV oral cancer survivor: How MD Anderson helped me reclaim my faith
BY D. Ivan Young, Ph.D.
As an International Coaching Foundation master-certified coach, National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching-certified coach and behavioral science expert, I’m normally someone that other people come to when they don’t know what to do. So, you’d think I’d be one of the last people on Earth to suffer a crisis of faith.
You’d be wrong.
Because when I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity in July 2021, I was beyond taken aback. I found myself extremely upset. I knew there were people out there who could smoke just about anything and still be fine. But I lead a very intentional, holistic, faith-based life. I exercise daily, eat right and don’t smoke or drink. And yet, here I was, with a stage IV oral cancer diagnosis.
Oral cancer diagnosis brings crisis of faith
Fortunately, my cancer was still treatable, despite being fairly advanced. Insurance would cover the therapies I needed. And, I was fortunate enough to be seeing the best doctors at the best cancer hospital in the world.
I had more than enough evidence in my life that God had His hands on me. Yet I was still having moments of self-doubt, depression, fear and even anger. Sometimes, I found myself fighting back tears. At one point, I remember thinking, “Usually, I can spot Divine Order easily and have unshakeable faith. So, where is it now, when I really need it?”
What ended up helping me reclaim my perspective was my care team at MD Anderson, especially Dr. Steven Frank, Dr. Patrick Garvey, my speech therapist, Holly McMillan, and Faiyzan Dhanani, Dr. Garvey’s physician assistant. These people weren’t just clinicians. They became my companions. And they gave me the clarity and compassion I so desperately needed.
Straight talk plus empathy made the path forward easier
My plastic surgeon, Dr. Patrick Garvey, was the first person to give me hope. He also reminded me that I hadn’t done anything wrong or brought this disease on myself. “Sometimes, cancer just happens,” he explained. He and his physician assistant, Faiyzan, replied to my anxious myChart messages in the very early hours of the morning not just once, but several times.
My radiation oncologist, Dr. Steven Frank, was also extremely responsive. He delivered the first good news I’d heard since my diagnosis. After performing the scoping procedure to accurately stage my cancer, he said, “Look: this is treatable. You’re not going to die.” He also fought hard to get me the proton therapy I needed.
And finally, when my head and neck surgeon, Dr. Ann Gillenwater, met with me, she was gentle yet firm. I questioned her about the need to use a non-weight-bearing bone from my leg (the fibula) to reconstruct my jaw.
And she said, “Look: you’re on national TV and you do a lot of public speaking, so you don’t want to be disfigured. If we don’t reconstruct your mandible, it’s going to affect not just your appearance, but also how you eat and speak. This lesion is in the retromolar area of your mouth, so we’re going to have to do a mandibular reconstruction. We need to harvest that bone.”
Her straight talk helped me realize that I really had no choice. I had the 12-and-a-half-hour surgery on Sept. 15, 2021. And she did such a great job of removing the cancer that I didn’t need chemotherapy afterward.
Back in a hopeful place
It’s been more than three months now since I had my surgery. I had my last proton therapy treatment on Dec. 21. And as of then, I became officially cancer-free. So, I considered banging the gong to be an early Christmas present.
I’m still dealing with pain, inflammation, oral mucositis, fatigue, and a few other side effects of treatment. But I’m also firmly back in a place of gratitude.
Yes, I had cancer. But it’s treatable. Sure, I had a bone removed from my leg. But it got put back in my face. And I had seven different procedures performed on me in the span of 13 hours, by doctors who are not just surgeons, but scientists.
Any one of them could easily be the chief of staff at any hospital in America. The work they did on me was exceptional. And the weekly follow-ups I had with Holly McMillan and Dr. Richard Cardoso gave me the reassurance and encouragement I needed to make it through the last few miles of my treatment journey.
Finding comfort in a commitment to medical excellence
Cancer sucks, and it’s not fair. But MD Anderson brings the best possible people together — and they come up with a plan that’s tailor-made for you. Where else can you get that?
There’s something really magical that happens at MD Anderson. Whatever your prognosis, you can find comfort in knowing you’re at a place where people really care about you, and they are there because of a commitment to excellence in medicine.
Everyone I’ve dealt with at MD Anderson is a five-star professional, from the dental oncologists and microsurgeons to the physicians’ assistants and nurses. Even the phlebotomists are excellent. I don’t think I could have picked a better team.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
TopicsProton Therapy Oral Cancer
There’s something really magical that happens at MD Anderson.
D. Ivan Young, Ph.D.