My salivary cancer diagnosis gave me a new appreciation for life

When I had an earache for a couple of weeks in August 2007 and couldn’t sleep on my right side for very long, I went to my primary care doctor. She told me I had an ear infection. I was given antibiotics and sent home. After a few weeks, I noticed a knot in my cheek, and it got even harder to sleep.

I thought something else was wrong.

My salivary cancer diagnosis

I was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a type of salivary cancer on Oct. 10, 2007. I was emotional about my diagnosis, but I knew that I needed a plan to move forward.

I received my diagnosis at another hospital, but I felt like I needed to go elsewhere for treatment. I wanted to feel confident in my care and know that my doctors cared about me as a person. My husband asked me, “Why aren’t we getting you treated at MD Anderson?”

As an MD Anderson employee, he knew I’d receive attentive and specialized care. MD Anderson, he said, would give me the best chance to survive.

My salivary cancer treatment at MD Anderson

I first met with my MD Anderson care team on Oct. 29.

On Dec. 6, I underwent a tracheostomy and mouth reconstruction to remove my tumors and rebuild the floor of my mouth.

Before my surgery, I was a nervous wreck. I really appreciated physician assistant Rolando De Luna for how calm he kept me. He talked to me for 45 minutes the night before to help me get into the right mindset.

After I had three tumors removed, my plastic surgeon, Dr. Peirong Yu, took tissue from my left forearm to create a flap in my mouth where the tumors were taken out. I lost my voice for a few weeks.

About a month later, I started six weeks of daily radiation therapy under the care of Dr. David Rosenthal.

After my radiation therapy sessions, I headed to physical therapy to rebuild strength in my mouth and neck, and speech therapy to learn how to talk again.

During that time, I used a dry erase board to write down my feelings and communicate with my family and doctors. I also wrote jokes to keep things lighthearted.

My family was my always there for me

From the time I was diagnosed, I was blessed to have an amazing support system – especially in my husband and daughter. Both of them were a godsend.

My husband Michael reassured me that things would be OK. My daughter Chelsea, who was 16 at the time, helped me watch out when I was eating things that might hurt my jaw and throat. She also did housework without me even asking. Before my diagnosis, she was living with her dad, but cancer brought her back into my life. That’s one of the things I’m most thankful for.

Hope even with a recurrence

In 2014, the knot in my cheek came back. Thankfully, it’s benign, but I return to MD Anderson every year to monitor it. It helps that I now work at MD Anderson, so I can easily come to my yearly appointments.

Life is a little rough with cancer, but my experience made me appreciate my life and the people in it more.

I have three new grandsons and new perspectives that have helped me grow and learn how to be a better mom. I celebrate everything that can be celebrated. Everything is just a lot brighter.

When you find out you have cancer, it’s like you lose your breath. But now I can tell cancer, “You did not get me. I got you.”

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