Tongue cancer survivor uses voice to support cancer research

When Cora “Corky” Hilliard was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer of the tongue for the
second time in June 2012, she got to MD
as quickly as she could. She’d had her first tongue
cancer occurrence treated near her home in Austin nearly three years
earlier. At the time, she’d been told that the disease would never
return to its original location.

At MD Anderson, our integrated approach
to cancer treatment won her admiration immediately.

“In 2009, I had to go out and find my own radiation oncologist, and
I couldn’t get any direction from the doctors about who was driving
the bus,” Corky says. “Then I came to MD
and met with Dr. Michael Kupferman and his team, and I
realized that I actually had a team. It included an
oncologist, a radiologist, a surgeon, a speech therapist, a
nutritionist and more, all working together. That gave me immense confidence.”

Tongue cancer treatment at MD
saves speech

Corky’s confidence proved well-founded. During an Aug. 2012 robot-assisted surgery, Kupferman was able to
completely remove the golf ball-sized tumor near the base of Corky’s
tongue without compromising her ability to speak — a critical concern
since she makes her living as a public speaker.

“I’d been told by a different doctor that if I had the surgery, only
my close friends and family might eventually be able
to understand me,” Corky says. “So I was facing not only the loss of
my ability to communicate verbally, but also the loss of my career.
MD Anderson literally gave me my voice back.”

Previous radiation exposure requires ongoing vigilance

Today, Corky considers herself lucky. None of the 30 or so lymph
nodes surgically removed during the course of her treatment showed
evidence of metastasis. So her second tongue cancer treatment didn’t
require chemotherapy or radiation.

That was a huge relief to Corky, after the side effects she’d
experienced from the high-dose radiation she’d received in 2009 as a
part of her first tongue cancer treatment. “It was really painful to
eat and drink then, and I had a blister on the end of my tongue for
two and a half months,” she says. “I also lost my sense of taste, but
eventually it came back.”

Corky is now just six months shy of the coveted five-year mark for
remaining tongue cancer-free. But she must watch her body closely for
signs of secondary cancers caused by her previous radiation exposure.

“I just had a basal cell cancer removed from my right eyelid,”
Corky says. “When I asked Dr. Richard Allen if it could be related to all
the radiation I received back in 2009, he said, ‘No doubt.’ So I pay
careful attention.”

Why Corky gives back to MD Anderson

Corky also finds great satisfaction in using her voice to give back
to the place that helped her to keep it.

She began donating annually to MD
in 2012, and she encourages others to do the same.

“I earmark my donations for Dr. Kupferman’s research,” Corky says.
“I know it’s a little self-serving since he’s studying my kind of
cancer, but I wanted to feel like I was contributing in some way.
State support for government institutions like MD
has been steadily diminishing, and Dr. K. saved my
life. This lets me feel like I’m paying my own way and doing my part.”

Make a gift to MD
to support cancer research that benefits
patients like Corky.