Five-time salivary gland cancer survivor faces life with a smile
Kelly Mireles’ smile is the facial feature most people notice when first meeting her. That alone is a minor miracle.
Kelly had most of her jawbone removed in March 2015 after a salivary gland cancer recurrence. Her mandible was rebuilt by MD Anderson surgeons in May 2016 using part of her fibula, a non-weight-bearing leg bone. Today, with the help of an oral prosthesis, Kelly is able to eat, speak and even smile again.
“I had a really hard time with it at first, and in some situations, I still feel a bit self-conscious,” Kelly admits. “But even when I had scars and a brace on my face, I went out and did things. I tried not to let cancer affect who I was and what I wanted to do.”
A salivary gland cancer diagnosis
Kelly first noticed a lump on the right side of her face in late 2008. She saw a dentist, an ENT and a chiropractor, who ruled out tooth and sinus problems, as well as TMJ. But they also offered her no other possible causes.
It took mentioning a twitching eye and a trembling lip to her gynecologist to finally get answers. “He sent me to an ENT oncologist, who did some scans,” Kelly says. “Sure enough, there was a tumor.”
Kelly was diagnosed with stage I adenocarcinoma on her right parotid gland — a rare oral cancer in the primary salivary gland — in October 2009. She had surgery near her home in San Antonio, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. But the cancer returned four more times over seven years, which required more surgeries, more chemotherapy and more radiation.
When the salivary gland cancer returned the last time in February 2016, her plastic surgeon had just moved to Houston and her ENT oncologist had stopped practicing. “I figured that was a sign we needed a different set of eyes looking at this,” Kelly says.
“Doing chemo and proton therapy at the same time was the most brutal treatment I’ve ever experienced,” Kelly says. “But I needed something aggressive because I couldn’t keep doing this.”
The surgery took place in May 2016, and Kelly began six weeks of daily treatments at the Proton Therapy Center. She also started taking low doses of the chemotherapy drug Taxotere, and she considers herself lucky that she didn’t really lose her hair this time.
“It just thinned a little bit, and I never felt nauseous,” she says.
Dealing with diet restrictions
The hardest part for Kelly has been learning what she can and can’t eat.
“I have all my top teeth and two on the bottom in the very back, so I can still chew things, even without the prosthesis,” she explains. “But I have a very dry mouth, so I always have to have water.”
To avoid irritating her mouth and tongue, Kelly eats only very bland foods. Sauces, seasonings, chocolate, carbonated drinks and alcohol are things of the past.
“I love food, so it’s been a challenge,” she says. “And I’m a huge Italian food person, but I can’t eat any of that. I can eat a steak if I cut it up small enough, but it’s still a very limited diet.”
Making peace with her ‘new normal’
Today, Kelly has made peace with both her appearance and her dietary restrictions. She’s had no evidence of disease for seven months, and she’s grateful to have more time with her children.
“Honestly, it’s a blessing I’m even here,” she says. “With my type of cancer, statistics say I shouldn’t have even survived the second round, much less the fifth, so I accept what I have.”