Tongue cancer teaches patient and caregiver the art of reinvention
Singer and songwriter Kimmie Rhodes holds a somewhat unique distinction: she’s supported two different people on their oral cancer journeys.
The first was her late husband, writer and music producer Joe Gracey, who died of metastatic esophageal cancer in 2011, more than 30 years after his initial tongue cancer diagnosis. The second is professional consultant and life coach Corky Hilliard, an MD Anderson tongue cancer patient who became Kimmie’s friend after they met in 2012.
“When a mutual friend asked me to talk to Corky about what she was facing, I thought, ‘Well, I’m either the best person in the world to do this or the worst person’ because there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Kimmie says. “I told her, ‘Look, if you lose your voice, you’re going to hate it. But you will also find amazing ways to reinvent yourself.’”
New methods of communication
Kimmie’s late husband, Joe, was a master of such reinvention. After losing the ability to speak in 1979, the popular former singer and DJ launched a new career as a successful record producer. Later, he even became a food writer — a significant accomplishment for a man without a tongue.
“Joe had his tongue removed surgically in 1979, so he had to throw food to the side of his mouth to chew and eat,” Kimmie says. “But he could communicate very well without speaking.”
One method Joe used to communicate was a simple children’s toy on which he could scribble notes with a plastic stylus and erase them with a quick tug on a piece of cellophane.
“I gave one to Corky early on since it had been such a big help to Joe,” Kimmie says. “But the best day was when she gave it back to me because she didn’t need it after all.”
A mutually beneficial friendship
Today, Kimmie is grateful for her friendship with Corky.
“It’s one of those little synchronicities of life, where two people are put together to help each other out,” she says. “After Joe died, I didn’t know what my purpose was anymore. I’d become the voice he’d lost, and we had a great life together, but I’d never reinvented myself the way he did. Corky helps people get moving back in the right direction, so she helped me through that.”
Finding comfort in Making Cancer History®
Kimmie finds it particularly comforting to think of how much MD Anderson meant to her late husband.
“None of us is getting out of this world alive, but Joe knew that he would serve as an example and be a part of the teaching process,” she says. “All along the way, he was at a place that was not just practicing medicine, but teaching medicine. He felt really privileged to be a part of that.”