Susan Joseph Smith
Wife, Marketing Executive,
and Survivor of Stage VI Tongue Cancer;
Life throws a lot of obstacles in one’s way. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Susan was unaware that she was actually very sick and not with the COVID-19 virus. After months of having trouble eating and losing weight, Susan was diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer – a diagnosis she had never heard of before and one that took four doctors and a full year to uncover, no doubt allowing cancer to aggressively progress.
“I felt something was wrong, yet every doctor I asked to examine what was a small growth on my tongue, all said it was nothing. I suppose as a 45-year-old female with no family history or risk factors, I didn’t fit the typical patient for oral cancer and so it was easier to determine the growth to be a simple irritation,” explained Susan. “The fourth ENT doctor I saw finally took one look at me and said we have a problem here. Doctor Bradford Chervin…I say his name often with the utmost gratitude for essentially saving my life. Doctor Chervin sent me for CAT Scan testing and quickly referred me to Yale-New Haven Smilow Cancer Hospital where they biopsied the growth and confirmed the diagnosis.”
As a relatively healthy person, Susan, fortunately, had never been seriously ill. She’d never broken a bone before or even had a root canal. She’s had a successful career in Marketing, traveled often for fun, and lives in a place she loves close to the beach.
Susan met her husband Christopher in Philadelphia, moved to New York together to experience Manhattan living, and then made Connecticut their home. She enjoys spending her time with family and friends, reading a good book on her screened porch, and tending her garden. Getting diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer was never even something she imagined – rather she envisioned herself as the caretaker for others as she aged.
Susan’s official diagnosis was Stage 4A with spread to one lymph node, and while the margins were clear following surgery, the cancer was deemed aggressive, so extensive treatment was recommended.
Susan underwent a 15-hour surgery, in which about 40% of her tongue was removed and reconstructed from a forearm free flap surgery and then a leg skin graft was performed to reconstruct her forearm. Her surgeons also performed a neck dissection surgery to remove over 30 lymph nodes to preventively stop the spread of any remaining cancer cells.
With only six weeks to recover after surgery, Susan then began 30 radiation treatments with concurrent six chemotherapy infusions. “This all sounds very technical in nature, but I assure you, it was an emotional and physical battle that tested my strength and my emotional mental stability. Yet at the same time, it connected me to so many supportive doctors and nurses that I consider saviors and most importantly a community of patients all fighting, struggling, and surviving cancer,” said Susan.
“When I look back on the treatment, I’m still in disbelief as to what I went through. I trudged through treatment, but my body did not react well. Radiation left me literally burnt, filled with mouth sores and thrush, and barely able to eat. Chemotherapy left me nauseous and supremely tired. My doctors continued to give me extra hydration throughout and flirted with the idea of a feeding tube due to massive weight loss, but I summoned the little strength I had and pushed back thinking my body still has some fight left in me. Two days after I completed radiation and chemotherapy, I landed in the hospital due to malnutrition for 10 days. Clearly, I had nothing left to give and my body was finally screaming enough!”
When Susan was discharged, she was on so many pain medications that all was a bit of a blur but slowly she started to improve. Walking only a block in the neighborhood slowly turned into half-hour strolls with her husband. Meals of yogurt slowly turned to pasta and then to chicken.
“Doctors may tell you it will take a few months to feel like yourself again, but patients will tell you the real story – that it takes much longer to physically and emotionally repair yourself and even then, you will be different in so many ways,” added Susan. “I hear so many healthcare professionals say “be positive” or “you are a warrior” as if you can smile away cancer. Everyone is different, but for me, these sayings did not resonate. Hearing I love you from my husband, family, and friends was all that mattered to me – it gave me the fuel to push through knowing they were thinking and praying for me.”
Susan attended the AHNS/HNCA Survivorship Symposium and heard the term “resilience” which resonated with her. Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover from difficulties. Susan certainly has resilience.
Susan is now post-surgery, radiation and chemotherapy and is cancer-free. She has learned to lean on many for support, guidance, and a friendly ear. She’s a founding member of Young Tongues, a social group made up of young patients all diagnosed with tongue cancer across the world, and she continues to connect with survivors and those just starting their cancer fight as there is no one else that truly understands the journey the same.
For now, she may not be able to eat pizza or her favorite sesame bagels anymore, but ice cream and cookies make a great dinner!
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