Tongue cancer teaches patient and caregiver the art of reinvention

Singer and songwriter Kimmie Rhodes holds a somewhat unique
distinction: she’s supported two different people on their oral cancer journeys.

The first was her late husband, writer and music producer Joe
Gracey, who died of metastatic esophageal cancer in 2011, more than 30 years
after his initial tongue cancer diagnosis. The second is professional
consultant and life coach Corky Hilliard, an MD
tongue cancer patient who became Kimmie’s friend after
they met in 2012.

“When a mutual friend asked me to talk to Corky about what she was
facing, I thought, ‘Well, I’m either the best person in the world to
do this or the worst person’ because there’s no way to sugarcoat it,”
Kimmie says. “I told her, ‘Look, if you lose your voice, you’re going
to hate it. But you will also find amazing ways to reinvent yourself.’”

New methods of communication

Kimmie’s late husband, Joe, was a master of such reinvention. After
losing the ability to speak in 1979, the popular former singer and DJ
launched a new career as a successful record producer. Later, he even
became a food writer a significant accomplishment for a man
without a tongue.

“Joe had his tongue removed surgically in 1979, so he had to throw
food to the side of his mouth to chew and eat,” Kimmie says. “But he
could communicate very well without speaking.”

One method Joe used to communicate was a simple children’s toy on
which he could scribble notes with a plastic stylus and erase them
with a quick tug on a piece of cellophane.

“I gave one to Corky early on since it had been such a big help to
Joe,” Kimmie says. “But the best day was when she gave it back to me
because she didn’t need it after all.”

A mutually beneficial friendship

Today, Kimmie is grateful for her friendship with Corky.

“It’s one of those little synchronicities of life, where two people
are put together to help each other out,” she says. “After Joe died, I
didn’t know what my purpose was anymore. I’d become the voice he’d
lost, and we had a great life together, but I’d never reinvented
myself the way he did. Corky helps people get moving back in the right
direction, so she helped me through that.”

Finding comfort in Making Cancer History®

Kimmie finds it particularly comforting to think of how much MD Anderson meant to her late husband.

“None of us is getting out of this world alive, but Joe knew that he
would serve as an example and be a part of the teaching process,” she
says. “All along the way, he was at a place that was not just
practicing medicine, but teaching medicine. He felt
really privileged to be a part of that.”

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by
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