Proud Mother, Wife & Stage IV Tongue Cancer Survivor; Taneytown, MD
Angie’s story technically begins in January 2016. She was a newlywed and pregnant with her and her new husband’s first child, and mom to a second child from a previous marriage. She noticed a sore under the left side of her tongue but didn’t think anything of it because when she was pregnant with her first child, she experienced clogged and infected salivary glands.
As her pregnancy progressed, so did the sore. Her general practitioner performed an examination, prescribed antibiotics and recommended she see her dentist. Her dentist then recommended that she schedule an appointment with an oral surgeon. Angie’s impression from the dentist was that it wasn’t anything to be concerned about, so she figured she would wait until the baby was born with the hopes the sore would heal itself. On August 11, 2016, Angie gave birth to a beautiful boy.
Soon after giving birth, Angie’s mouth sore went from painful and uncomfortable to unbearable pain, and issues with speech and eating soon developed. Angie finally went to an oral surgeon, who prescribed a stronger antibiotic, and she was asked to come back in a week. At the follow-up appointment, Angie underwent a biopsy and learned, within a week ‘s time, that her sore was, in fact, a tumor: squamous cell carcinoma.
“Here I was, a 36-year-old mom to a 6 week old and a 9-year-old, newly married, and I was told that I had cancer–one of my biggest fears,” explained Angie, ”I couldn’t wrap my head around how this happened. I had always taken care of my mouth and NEVER had a cavity, and I now have cancer in my mouth?!”
All the scans confirmed that she had a large tumor under a good portion of the left side of her tongue, and it had spread to her lymph nodes. She was then referred to an oral maxillofacial surgeon – the best of the best in Maryland.
Angie was informed that her road was going to be long and hard. The surgeon was going to perform the free flap procedure, which would be taking a part of her lower arm/wrist and artery to reconstruct what they needed to remove from her tongue and then use grafted skin from her thigh to cover the area on the donor site. “Even hearing this, I couldn’t understand what they were saying to me,” said Angie.
On October 24, 2016, she underwent approximately 12 hours of surgery to remove the tumors and perform reconstruction. Two-thirds of her tongue was removed and more than 100 lymph nodes from my neck.
Following surgery, Angie’s first few days were a blur. “I woke up confused about why I couldn’t talk and had a hard time breathing. Well, it all set in. This was who I am now. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to talk or eat or breathe normally again. Would I ever eat regular food again? Would I ever be able to teach my children anything else?”
She was in the hospital for 11 days and missed her baby’s first Halloween, his first smiles. Angie was very concerned and tried to figure out how she was going to stay strong for her older son, who was having a very hard time understanding what was going on with his mom.
Angie pulled herself together as much as she could and pushed forward. Six weeks following surgery, she started chemo and radiation treatments. She was learning how to talk again. Her breathing started returning to normal as her tracheostomy site healed, and then a PEG tube was inserted for nutrition.
“Treatments were hard. Harder than I ever thought it could be. I had to be medicated every day when I went to radiation treatments because I had anxiety so bad. I cried every single day,” explained Angie. “I lost a lot of my hair, but decided to cut it all off and donate it, so someone else was able to use it.”
In late January 2017, she finished her treatments and faced the long road of recovery.
Her recovery was pretty much what she was informed it would be: tiring, painful, confusing and difficult. She started developing side effects from treatments, similar to what many head and neck cancer patients experience. Some were short-lived, thankfully, and some are permanent. Her long term and permanent side effects include memory issues, insomnia, extreme fatigue, hearing loss, tinnitus, peeling/bleeding skin on her lips, PTSD, anxiety and depression that have increased as she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression a few years before diagnosis.
Since completing treatment, her “new life” has been tough to accept and hard to learn. Quite a few things have turned out better than expected. Her family has moved to the country, and she has rekindled an old friendship with one of her best friends. Best of all, she and her husband were pleasantly surprised with a little girl, who was born in April 2019. “She was a gift we didn’t think we could have, and she was brought to us as our greatest blessing,” expressed Angie.
“The last three years have been hard. The hardest of my whole life and there have been some really tough times in my life. I’ve never been one to take my life for granted. I always knew that tomorrow is never promised and take each day one at a time. I’ve learned that the people who mean the most are the ones who take the time to text, call or visit. They are the ones that even though I am in remission, they know I still need people to support me. Even with all of my daily reminders of what this disease has done to me, the permanent reminders, the scars that anyone can see. I remind myself, even on the bad dark days that I fought this horrible disease and I will always fight for the rest of my days.”
Angie’s motto is, “I’m still here! I am here with my children. I am here with my husband. I am here to help teach other people about head and neck cancer.”