My advice to other patients: Focus on today

I am a strong, athletic, never-been-sick type of person. I am also very career-driven. So when I was diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue, a type of oral cancer, in 2016, I thought it’d be no problem. I’d undergo treatment and keep working while I was doing it.

Boy, was I wrong. That might be true for some people, but it sure wasn’t for me. I was hospitalized for a week after my very first chemotherapy treatment. I had to be flown back to Houston from Mississippi so my care team could see me personally. I was dehydrated and a total mess. At one point, I had a complete meltdown, and one of the nurses had to sedate me to keep me from yelling. (So embarrassing!)

But then, she called in an MD Anderson social work counselor, Djuana Fomby, who helped me put it all in perspective. The day I met with Fomby changed my entire outlook.

My biggest challenge: relinquishing control

I was really mad when I was admitted to the hospital. I thought I’d failed because I wasn’t strong enough. I’d heard all these stories about people who were still working while on chemotherapy and felt totally fine. That was not my experience.

I could barely move and was really weak. I also had to get a PEG tube inserted much sooner than I expected to, because the chemotherapy was attacking the tumor in my mouth, which was affecting the way my tongue and throat functioned. Suddenly, I couldn’t swallow anything, so eating and drinking were not possible. That felt like another way I’d failed.

Nothing seemed to be in my control anymore, and I was panicking. But the night I lost it, Fomby was a lifesaver. She helped me stop worrying about bills and kids and work and surgery and radiation and mowing the lawn and Jeremy’s spelling test — basically, everything I was mentally piling on myself. She helped me focus on today and understand that I had to let everything else go and take my cancer treatment one day at a time. Because the rest of it wouldn’t matter, if I didn’t get through this first.

So, I did that. I put on blinders and focused on chemotherapy. No sense in worrying about surgery or radiation yet. Those were still months away. I put all my crazy, overachieving energy into fighting cancer while in treatment, knowing I’d eventually be able to resume all the stuff I really wanted to be doing instead. Cancer became my full-time job. I still had bad days, of course, but because of my attitude adjustment, they became much less frequent and more manageable.

What I’ve learned from undergoing oral cancer treatment

Surviving cancer does not magically make me a better or more profound person. But I do feel like my family is stronger now and my career is more successful because of my experience at MD Anderson.

It was there that I learned I could not do it alone. That took me a long time (and the help of my MD Anderson social work counselor) to finally admit. But I can let people in and trust my health care team, even when the things they tell you seem impossible (a working tongue made out of arm?!).

I am an incredibly independent and driven person, but it was not until I accepted my situation and permitted others to help me that I was finally able to stop stressing myself out and begin the business of healing. So, control what you can and trust that the rest will work itself out. It’s OK to lean on others.

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