Squamous cell carcinoma survivor: How cancer helped me discover a new passion

When I started college, I had a specific vision of where my life was
heading – I was going to be an Air Force pilot. I had a full Air Force
ROTC scholarship and was selected to join the Euro-NATO Pilot Training
Program.

Little did I know, that was not where my life was heading. I
received a cancer diagnosis at age 21.

I’d gone to an ENT specialist because I had lost my voice and
couldn’t get it back. I figured it was a sinus issue, so I was shocked
when he instead diagnosed me with throat cancer – specifically, squamous cell carcinoma of the vocal cords.

In 2001, I underwent a laser resection surgery and radiation therapy in my home state of Oklahoma.
Though my treatment was successful, my medical condition disqualified
me from the Air Force pilot program. I’ve always been an overachiever,
so losing this opportunity made me feel like I’d lost part of my
identity. I hated that feeling, so I set a new goal to graduate early
from college. I did it, but I still had no career path. I took a job
as paralegal until I could figure out what I wanted to do. Turns out,
that position helped me discover a new passion: law.

A squamous cell carcinoma recurrence

Six years later, as I was beginning my career as a lawyer in Kansas
City, Missouri, I developed a cough that wouldn’t stop. Then I started
coughing up blood. A bronchoscopy revealed that I had squamous cell
carcinoma of the trachea, and the cancer was in two different spots.

I didn’t want to take any chances, so I came to MD Anderson because I’d always heard it was
the best place for cancer treatment. And that proved to be true.
Everything there ran quickly and smoothly. At other hospitals, it
takes days to get CT scan results, but at MD
Anderson
, I got my results within hours.

In February 2008, Dr. Stephen Swisher performed a tracheal
resection, cutting out the affected section of my trachea then
reconnecting the healthy parts. Afterwards, he temporarily stitched my
chin to my chest to prevent my trachea from ripping open during the
healing process. It was a difficult experience, but I’m lucky that I
have no lasting side effects.

My squamous cell carcinoma hasn’t returned since 2008, although in
2009, Dr. Randal Weber removed a benign tumor from my
salivary gland, and in 2013, I had a small cancerous bump removed from
my chest.

Finding happiness after a cancer diagnosis

I still return to MD Anderson for my
annual checkup with Dr.
George Eapen
, and to be honest, the nerves in the weeks leading
up to that appointment have yet to go away. I’m not sure they ever
will, but I refuse to let cancer rob me of happiness.

Yes, cancer may have kept me from becoming an Air Force pilot, but
I’m now a senior staff attorney for a superior court judge in Atlanta,
Georgia, and I couldn’t be more satisfied with my career. In fact, I’m
actually thankful I’m not a pilot because I love being able to come
home to my two young children every night.

When you are young, you have a vision of how your life will be, but
it’s important to remember that life rarely plays out the way you
expect. Stuff happens. Thankfully, it all works out in the end.
 Cancer showed me that it’s possible to have more than one passion. So
if your diagnosis forces you away from your dream, don’t give up on
happiness. Keep looking, and you’ll find your new purpose.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by
calling 1-877-632-6789.