It was April 3, 2003, 6 days before my 21st birthday, the day the oral surgeon called from his vacation to tell me my biopsy results. I had a tumor the size of a quarter on my tongue that had been biopsied a few days earlier. I didn’t really need to hear the words because I already knew what he was going to say. He wasn’t interrupting his vacation to give me good news. “Your tumor is malignant. You have cancer.” I know he told me other information but the only words I could hear were “You have cancer,’ over and over again in my head. Thank goodness my mom was there. I handed her the phone so she could get the information I couldn’t process in that moment.
“Are you going to work?” Those were the first words to breakthrough the endless 3 word loop that had been repeating in my head. “Do you want me to call the school and tell them you can’t come in today?” I had to be at my job teaching swim lessons to 5th graders in less than an hour. I liked my job. I loved teaching the kids. THE KIDS. “No, Mom, it’s ok. I’m going to work. I can’t do anything here but sit and cry. I’m going to work.”
Next question, “Are you going to have a party for Austin’s birthday?” It was also my son’s 4th birthday that day. Something happy to focus on. “Yes we are having the party.” Even though I felt like the world stopped after hearing those words, this was my reality check that life doesn’t stop. The show must go on!
I called my then boyfriend, now my husband, to tell him the news. He told our close friends and we all met at our apartment at lunch time for “support group.” They gave me the motivation I needed to get through the rest of the day at work and my son’s birthday party.
My mom had scheduled an appointment with the surgeon we were referred to. I was very anxious about the appointment with the surgeon. I wanted more information but I was also scared of what that information would mean for me. I had been very healthy my entire life, so this was a totally scary, foreign experience for me. How would this affect my life, my son, school, work? I had so many questions but I wasn’t really sure if I wanted the answers.
I had squamous cell carcinoma, stage 3 by size, but they didn’t think it had spread to my lymph nodes yet. The surgeon wanted to remove half of my tongue and do a radical neck dissection, which would have basically cleaned out the left side of my neck. HALF OF MY TONGUE! Whoa. I like talking. I talk a lot and losing half of my tongue might make that difficult. We decided to go for a 2nd opinion and see if there was a less radical treatment.
This cancer effects mostly men over the age of 65 with a history of heavy tobacco and/or alcohol use and I didn’t fit that description so we tried to find a doctor to take into account my age and quality of life after surgery. So I spent my 21st birthday getting tests and meeting with another doctor for a 2nd opinion.
We decided to go with the 2nd opinion, removing 1/3 of my tongue and doing a modified neck dissection and radiation following, if necessary. This is a decision that will come back to haunt me later but that’s a story for another time. I was completely naïve going into this, I didn’t have an experience with surgery or cancer. I had looked over my schedule, my very busy schedule, and penciled in surgery for the end of May, 6 weeks away. I had a very full life at this time, 2 full time jobs, full time class schedule and a 4 year old, not one spare second for surgery. So when the doctor said we are doing this surgery in 8 days, I responded, “That doesn’t work for me. I’m really busy right now. I was thinking the end of May.” He laughed at me and said, “That’s not how this works. We need to do this as soon as possible.” That was my first experience with how “this works.”
Cancer doesn’t just take over your body, it takes over your life. All your plans, everything in your normal life gets put on hold so you can focus on your time and energy on fighting the cancer and going to doctor’s appointments, surgeries, tests. However, getting back to the normal things, a normal routine is exactly what you need, and want the most. Taking back your life piece by piece, small victory by small victory, achieving everything they tell you you can’t do. That’s how you win. That’s how you beat the cancer into submission. I was talking several hours after surgery, not days after and no speech therapy. I won. I went back to work teaching swim lessons 3 weeks after surgery, not 6. I won. I returned to college for the Fall semester. I won. The cancer has never come back. I won. There have been many obstacles on this 12 year journey, mostly from side effects of the high dose of radiation I had, but I’ve overcome them all. Cancer, you LOSE! I WON.