It all started when the right side of my face started to feel sensitive to the touch. I shrugged it off for about 5 years, thinking it must have just been from grinding my teeth. Then in 2019, during a visit to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor, I decided to mention that I had some sensitivity on the right side of my face.
The doctor performed a biopsy and MRI to see if there was anything to be concerned about. The biopsy came back inconclusive, but I was told there was something on the MRI, and the doctor wasn’t sure what it was. I was sent to see a specialist in the field of head & neck surgery, who performed a more extensive biopsy.
I’ll never forget the day I received the results in June 2019. I was sitting in the doctor’s office with my mom and my daughter when I was told that I had an adenoid cystic carcinoma in my salivary gland. Then, I was told I would have to have a 5-hour surgery during which the doctors would reconstruct part of my jaw. It was an out-of-body experience. The news left me in complete shock. I had to keep looking at my mom and my daughter to reaffirm that the whole experience was real.
I remember asking a lot of questions about my surgery, which was scheduled for the following month. The doctors laid out specifically what would happen, but I never could have predicted what the whole experience would actually feel like. I ended up having an 8-hour surgery. I woke up in the ICU with tubes everywhere—a feeding tube in my nose and a tracheostomy tube in my throat so I could breathe. I remember being unable to speak. The only way I could communicate with my daughter was by squeezing her hand. I felt nauseous and uncomfortable, but I just kept telling myself, “this too shall pass.”
Things got better as the days went by. They removed my tracheostomy tube so I could speak again, and my nausea subsided. I couldn’t eat or drink anything for a week, but I slowly progressed from liquids to soft foods and eventually back to regular foods. All of the nurses were wonderful, and my family visited me every day. When I got home, I remember thinking I didn’t look like myself. I felt like my whole face had changed.
The following months involved a lot of adjusting to my new reality. The doctors had to pull some of my teeth and remove some bone, so eating became a learning experience. I could no longer fully open my jaw, so I had to find ways to adapt.
In October 2019, I started proton beam radiation therapy, which was just as difficult as the surgery itself. Despite having welts on my tongue so bad that I could barely talk, I laughed more during my radiation treatment than any other time in my life. I could have easily rolled up and cried, but instead I relied on my sense of humor through it all, and soldiered on. I just kept telling myself, “this is what I have to do. I have to get through this.”
When I look back on the last year and a half, I can’t believe all that I went through. My daughter took pictures to document my journey so that I can always remind myself how far I came from the first few days after my surgery. The whole experience is still very much a part of me, and I feel extremely grateful that I can share my story today. I’m happy to say that after all this time, I can finally recognize myself when I look in the mirror.
I want to close with a few pieces of advice I would give to cancer patients currently undergoing treatment. First, know that you’re not in this alone—all cancer survivors are with you. It does get better! We get better! Second, never stop laughing, even in the darkest of times. Finally, once you make it through your treatment, join a cancer survivor support group. Talking to other people who truly understand what you’ve been through can make all the difference in your life.