Tina M. O’Dell
Mother, Marine, Fighter, and Survivor of HPV-Attributed Stage III Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Head and Neck; Columbus, IN
Tina’s cancer journey began in January 2015, when she noticed swollen lymph nodes on the right side of her neck, directly under her jawline. A former Marine, she was in excellent shape and stayed active with CrossFit, which had transformed her body and mind into the best they had ever been.
She knew the lymph nodes were not normal and had them checked by her family doctor. The prevailing thought was she was experiencing an infection and treated with two rounds of antibiotics, but the swelling did not subside.
Over the next six months, Tina monitored the swollen lymph nodes. The week of July 4th, she scheduled a massage with concentration on the lymphatic system. The following day, her lymph nodes had swollen twice their size and started to experience severe pain shooting through and down her neck. She had also been unable to shake achy muscles from her CrossFit exercising and experienced a persistent runny nose and cough during her workouts. She was convinced it was merely the onset of the flu.
A visit to the local ENT and four biopsies later, she was sent to a head and neck surgeon’s clinic where she was diagnosed with HPV-attributed Stage 3 Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the head and neck.
Her medical team performed a Da Vinci Robot intricate modified neck dissection surgery. She also underwent a tonsillectomy and her tongue was skinned from near its top to the very base. Her medical team recommended radiation therapy only and she underwent 35 treatments.
“I was blessed to have access to a Tomotherapy treatment center. The radiation delivery was mapped through a series of rotations of the machine,” explained Tina. “I experienced thrush three times, lost my ability to eat, swallowing was close to impossible, lost 20 pounds, and my voice was gone. I had to take several breaths to say one sentence.”
The silver lining in her cancer journey was the blessing of her constant companion, Barb. Barb accompanied her to every medical appointment, broke the news to her family when she could not, comforted her when she cried, and watched out for her teenage son.
Although this friendship was a mere year old, their lives became eternally intertwined. Tina’s lifelong friends were comforted she had such support and mentioned that they were a bit “jealous”. Tina was miles from her family and her longtime friends, and Barb became her everything.
“My family and friends love Barb and are thankful that love led the way through the most perilous journey anyone or any family could endure,” said Tina. “I am forever indebted to her love and strength. Every day she watched me become weaker and weaker, but each day, her encouragement and those trips to McDonalds for a milkshake following my treatment were constant reminders that life and love were meant to go on and giving in to it was not an option.”
Three and a half years later, Tina is now cancer free, and is able to talk and eat, although she lost her salivary glands due to the treatment. She is once again on her personal fitness journey, combining it with a holistic approach to spiritual, physical, and mental fitness.
She continues to coach lacrosse and takes every opportunity to educate others about head and neck cancer and its causes. She talks often to families and those she comes into contact with about HPV and its long-term effects, and the importance of HPV vaccination.
“I had no idea that HPV could cause head and neck cancer,” added Tina. “I am an advocate for everyone I know. I don’t want them to experience what I and my family experienced because we did not know about this sexually transmitted virus.”
Tina’s son, now 18, has been forever changed by her critical illness but feels blessed every day that he still has his mother to lean on.
Sadly, Tina has lost several friends to cancer. Each time, she struggles to not be overwhelmed by survivor’s guilt and each time she is reminded to live life and live it boldly for them.
“Cancer quickly becomes a ‘we’ thing, not a ‘me’ thing,” explained Tina. “I would be pleased to be part of someone else’s ‘we’ in supporting others through similar experiences.”