My name is Emily Tickle Thomas and I had cancer. I was diagnosed with oral squamous cell carcinoma in 2007 while pregnant with my fourth son. I was referred to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston by my doctor in Memphis. I had successful surgery at MD Anderson and returned for checkups there every few months for two years. I have since remained cancer-free.
I consider my cancer experience "the lucky kind" -- one surgery at MD Anderson to remove the tumor on my tongue, followed by checkups and CT scans every few months for a few years. A serious and life-changing experience, definitely, but nothing really, compared to what so many people with cancer -- friends, family and strangers -- are going through every single day.
I had "a place" on my tongue biopsied a number of times over several years. It would heal after each biopsy, then show up again a year or so later. Each time the pathology report revealed abnormal cells, but I was assured that "It was probably nothing. Don't worry about it." So that is what I did, until the next time the ulcer began to bother me.
By this time, I was pregnant with our fourth son and was advised to put off a more invasive laser surgery as long as possible into the pregnancy.
Fortunately, my doctor opted to take a biopsy instead of just the planned laser removal. The day after Mother's Day 2007, we got the call. The biopsy showed that I had oral squamous cell carcinoma. During that very first phone call, my doctor said that he had already placed a call to his colleague, Dr. Eduardo Diaz in the Head and Neck Department at MD Anderson in Houston, to get the process started of me being seen there.
Immediately, my husband and I were overwhelmed: my pregnancy; our already-a-handful three sons; the process of moving into a new house; and now cancer. Cancer. I could barely say it out loud.
Within two weeks, we left our boys with their grandparents and we were in Houston meeting with a team of doctors to determine a treatment plan. There was talk of radiation and neck dissection to remove lymph nodes. Taking the baby early. The possibility of chemo.
My second surgery within a month's time, this time to remove the cancer, was scheduled for the last day of May. I was 27 weeks pregnant.
I woke up to the fetal heart monitor thumping and no incisions in my neck. Dr. Diaz was able to remove all of the cancer.
As I said, I call my cancer experience "the lucky kind" because my scars are on the inside and I didn't endure weeks of radiation or months of chemo like so many people with cancer do. I didn't lose my hair. I didn't lose my ability to talk or swallow. It changed me, but my experience was a journey, not a battle.
Four years later, I am a healthy wife and mother to four sons. I no longer make the trip to MD Anderson for checkups. It is never far from my thoughts, whether I am recommending a friend who has been diagnosed or simply counting it among my many blessings.
Dr. Diaz's physician assistant, Jennifer Alpard, was always supportive during the time I was his patient. I still keep in touch with her via email and want to thank her for the encouragement.
Emily has recently started a nonprofit organization inspired by a simple act of kindness shown to her family during her first visit to MD Anderson. The Cancer Card Xchange collects and distributes gift cards to cancer patients simply to brighten their day. To find out how to get involved, go to www.cancercardxchange.org.