As a registered nurse, Asha Bhandari was familiar with cancer – even less common cancer types, like oral cancer. But she never believed she’d receive her own diagnosis, even when she first noticed the sore on her lower gum – an oral cancer symptom. Even when that sore started to grow after a few weeks. And even when the oral surgeon took a biopsy and three days later gave her the news that it was cancerous.
“I was so devastated,” Asha says, remembering her diagnosis at age 54. “I ate right. I exercised. I didn’t smoke. I was healthy. I didn’t think I fit the profile of a cancer patient.”
Asha came to MD Anderson for a second opinion, and met with Randal Weber, M.D. He performed a series of tests, X-rays, blood tests and CT scans. He confirmed the news Asha had refused to believe: she had squamous cell carcinoma of the gum, a type of oral cancer. But he also gave her hope.
“I remember it exactly,” she says. “Dr. Weber called me and he said, ‘The good news is, we’re going to cure you.’ To me, that was big.”
Now under the care of MD Anderson’s Head and Neck team, Asha gained a growing feeling of ease. She was scared, but she knew her multidisciplinary team would take care of her.
Undergoing oral cancer surgery
Asha’s oral cancer surgery was scheduled for Sept. 25, 2015 – just a month after her diagnosis. Doctors planned to remove the tumor and see if the cancer had spread to any nearby lymph nodes, but to do this they would need to remove four teeth and part of Asha’s jaw. They planned to replace it with a part of her fibula, the large bone in her leg, and a skin graft taken from her left thigh.
It was a complicated procedure, but Asha knew that her care team, led by Dr. Weber and Matthew Hanasono, M.D., would succeed.
“They put me at ease,” Asha says.
The surgery took hours. Meanwhile, Asha’s extended family gathered in the waiting room –- all 15 of them, anxious and worried. Every few hours, a member of the surgery team would deliver an update to Asha’s family. As the surgery went on, the news got better and better, and their reactions grew from relief to joy. Asha’s family let out loud cheers when they learned that the cancer hadn’t spread and the existing cancer cells had been removed. Asha was still unconscious from the anesthesia and had a long road to recovery ahead of her, but now she was cancer-free.
Asha’s recovery from surgery
Today, the only sign of Asha’s surgery is a scar on her neck and two large scars on her left leg and left thigh. But it didn’t start that way. After the surgery, Asha spent one night in the intensive care unit, as planned, then moved to a hospital room. Her face was swollen, and she had to have a tracheotomy to help her breathe and a feeding tube to help her get the nutrients her body needed.
Physical therapists and speech pathologists visited Asha often. Immediately following the surgery, Asha couldn’t talk. The speech pathologists reminded Asha to roll her tongue and try to form words. By the end of the week, she had found her voice again. The physical therapists worked with her to improve her leg strength and help her walk again.
Asha stayed in the hospital a little longer than expected because she developed an infection, but was treated and released after 10 days.
“I was sad to say goodbye to all my nurses,” she says.
A reminder of what’s possible
Asha continued to see improvements once she returned home. After five weeks, her feeding tube was removed. After six weeks, she was back at work.
She attributes her success to a few factors: the support of her loving family, the exercises she did before and after surgery, her own determination and her faith in her care team.
“They did 200% more than I ever expected,” Asha says.
Now Asha returns to MD Anderson twice a year for scans. She hopes her story shows newly diagnosed patients what’s possible. Her advice? “Stay strong, stay together,” she says. “And stay positive.”