In June 2015, I was visiting my parents when I came down with a sore throat and found a flesh-colored lump on the right side of my tongue.
I cut my trip short to get home to a dentist. He said it was just an inflamed taste bud. While I didn’t necessarily think that was the case, I trusted that my lump wasn’t a major concern.
But around December, I began having horrible shooting pains across the right side of my face. The pain often brought me to the brink of tears.
My adenoid cystic carcinoma diagnosis
In late February, after my family and I had moved, I had a fine-needle biopsy. I was told right then that I had stage II adenoid cystic carcinoma, a type of oral cancer. I have never smoked, I was an occasional wine drinker and I was 27 years old.
I was devastated. I was a wife, new mom and NICU nurse, and I wanted nothing more than to just live.
That same month, I underwent a hemiglossectomy – a partial removal of the tongue to get rid of the cancer.
Coming to MD Anderson for oral cancer treatment
After surgery, my doctors couldn’t agree on whether I should receive radiation. This made me very uncertain.
So, I researched cancer centers with experience treating my rare disease. MD Anderson popped up in every search. It offered proton therapy, a type of radiation that uses proton beams to deliver radiation right to the tumor and has fewer side effects. I set up an appointment.
My experience at MD Anderson was nothing short of amazing. Adam Garden, M.D., was my radiation oncologist and Merrill Kies, M.D., was my medical oncologist. They both were so patient, knowledgeable and listened to my every concern. I truly believe they gave me another chance at life.
I was treated with proton therapy. At the same time, I received weekly chemotherapy treatments. I felt nauseous from the chemotherapy and suffered with pain at times, but I knew I had to fight. I completed the month-and-a-half of treatment on Sept. 9, 2016.
One of the defining moments in my cancer care was when I read a visit summary by Dr. Kies. He stated that the goal for my treatment was “curative.” Up until that point, no one had ever said that to me. I was told my rare cancer was very likely to return, but he gave me hope that despite what statistics say, he wanted to try to cure me. That simple note gave me more motivation to fight.
What I learned from cancer
It can be hard to sit down and talk about what you’re going through during cancer treatment. But as I learned by starting a blog, documenting your feelings can help you cope. It also allowed me to keep my family updated on what was happening without having to repeat myself.
I also learned that it’s important to approach things one day at a time. Everything about cancer is overwhelming, but if you take it one day at a time, it’s easier to reach the finish line. Keep your faith, and keep your eyes on the prize – life after cancer.
Finally, follow your instincts. If you feel like something is wrong, don’t accept, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing,” as an answer.
Savoring life after oral cancer treatment
I now return to MD Anderson every three months for checkups. My scans in November 2016 showed no evidence of disease. My only remaining side effect is fatigue, but it’s not nearly as bad as it was during treatment.
Because I received radiation to my face, I lost a small patch of hair in the treatment area. I also had burns from radiation to my chin and neck. They’ve healed, but I’m left with slight hyperpigmentation where I received treatment. To me, these seem like small prices to pay.
Life now is about savoring every moment. During treatment, I promised myself that in this new era of my life I’d focus seeing the world and making memories with my sweet son and husband.
As I’m learning, difficult roads can lead to beautiful destinations.