When Cora “Corky” Hilliard was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer of the tongue for the second time in June 2012, she got to MD Anderson as quickly as she could. She’d had her first tongue cancer occurrence treated near her home in Austin nearly three years earlier. At the time, she’d been told that the disease would never return to its original location.
At MD Anderson, our integrated approach to cancer treatment won her admiration immediately.
“In 2009, I had to go out and find my own radiation oncologist, and I couldn’t get any direction from the doctors about who was driving the bus,” Corky says. “Then I came to MD Anderson and met with Dr. Michael Kupferman and his team, and I realized that I actually had a team. It included an oncologist, a radiologist, a surgeon, a speech therapist, a nutritionist and more, all working together. That gave me immense confidence.”
Tongue cancer treatment at MD Anderson saves speech
Corky’s confidence proved well-founded. During an Aug. 2012 robot-assisted surgery, Kupferman was able to completely remove the golf ball-sized tumor near the base of Corky’s tongue without compromising her ability to speak — a critical concern since she makes her living as a public speaker.
“I’d been told by a different doctor that if I had the surgery, only my close friends and family might eventually be able to understand me,” Corky says. “So I was facing not only the loss of my ability to communicate verbally, but also the loss of my career. MD Anderson literally gave me my voice back.”
Previous radiation exposure requires ongoing vigilance
Today, Corky considers herself lucky. None of the 30 or so lymph nodes surgically removed during the course of her treatment showed evidence of metastasis. So her second tongue cancer treatment didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation.
That was a huge relief to Corky, after the side effects she’d experienced from the high-dose radiation she’d received in 2009 as a part of her first tongue cancer treatment. “It was really painful to eat and drink then, and I had a blister on the end of my tongue for two and a half months,” she says. “I also lost my sense of taste, but eventually it came back.”
Corky is now just six months shy of the coveted five-year mark for remaining tongue cancer-free. But she must watch her body closely for signs of secondary cancers caused by her previous radiation exposure.
“I just had a basal cell cancer removed from my right eyelid,” Corky says. “When I asked Dr. Richard Allen if it could be related to all the radiation I received back in 2009, he said, ‘No doubt.’ So I pay careful attention.”
Why Corky gives back to MD Anderson
Corky also finds great satisfaction in using her voice to give back to the place that helped her to keep it.
She began donating annually to MD Anderson in 2012, and she encourages others to do the same.
“I earmark my donations for Dr. Kupferman’s research,” Corky says. “I know it’s a little self-serving since he’s studying my kind of cancer, but I wanted to feel like I was contributing in some way. State support for government institutions like MD Anderson has been steadily diminishing, and Dr. K. saved my life. This lets me feel like I’m paying my own way and doing my part.”
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