Les Mayer

“Years after my surgery, I attended the THANC Foundation fundraiser event to benefit research, education, and patient support. What an amazing moment it was to be seated at a table full of head and neck cancer survivors. They were fabulous people. We all took turns telling our war stories, rolling up our sleeves, and comparing our scars—our “Badges of Courage”. It was the first time I had discussed my cancer journey with others who could truly understand. It was a beautiful thing.”

30 Stories in 30 Days

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. For the next 4 weeks, we will post stories written by cancer survivors, caregivers and friends for our 30 Stories in 30 Days campaign. We hope their perspectives and insight will help others along their journey.

This all started twelve years ago, when I bit my tongue eating dinner one night. I drew some blood, and it wasn’t a big deal to me at the time, but after a few days I noticed that the cut was not healing. Even a week later it still looked like there was a red pimple on my tongue. At the urging of my dear wife, I saw my family dentist who referred me to a brilliant oral and maxillofacial surgeon. He took one very long look and said, “You may have cancer.” He then recommended that I go and see his dental school professor, and an expert. A biopsy of my tongue lesion came back positive for squamous cell carcinoma.

I had always been in pretty good health. I ran marathons and still exercised all the time. So this cancer diagnosis was a bit of a shock. I was angry at myself for not going to see the dentist sooner. But I think my family was far more scared than I was. The thought on everyone’s mind was, “Who knew you could get cancer of the tongue?” My number one priority was not becoming a victim of this disease. I wanted to maintain my profession, my ability to socialize, and most of all: exercise.

For any medical students/residents out there, if you are studying up on your head and neck reconstructive surgery, look out for my case

Within a month, I was scheduled for surgery. My team of surgeons had planned a six-hour procedure that involved splitting my jaw, removing the tongue tumor as well as some diseased teeth, and transplanting a piece of tissue from my forearm to reconstruct the tongue. This sounded intense, but I was ready. On the morning of the procedure, I was doing push-ups in the pre-op waiting area. The nurses rushed over and told me, “You need to chill out, you have surgery in less than an hour!”

The operation was an overwhelming success. I am immensely fortunate and grateful for the remarkable skill and brilliance of my surgeon and the entire surgical team by his side. One of them, an international expert in head and neck surgery and Medical Advisor of the THANC Foundation, thought my case was noteworthy enough to include in a textbook he was writing at the time. He asked my permission to publish photos, and of course I said yes. For any medical students/residents out there, if you are studying up on your head and neck reconstructive surgery, look out for my case!

I stayed in the hospital for a week and was discharged the day before Thanksgiving, making it the best Thanksgiving ever for me, my wife, daughter and son. My family took this diagnosis harder than I did—running through their minds were worries of recurrence and cancerous spread. But as a family we held together strong, year after year, and put our hope in each other, our faith, and of course my distinguished, acclaimed medical team. My family was a huge part of my successful recovery. And over the years my doctors have become part of my family too.

We all took turns telling our war stories, rolling up our sleeves, and comparing our scars—our “Badges of Courage”

After surgery came radiation. For six weeks I reported to the hospital every day. Radiation was much worse than surgery for me. My doses kept going up, especially the last three weeks. Eventually the treatment was complete, but the thing about radiation was in my case it continues to affect you for years afterwards. Post-radiation issues have been the most frustrating part of this entire journey. More annoyance than anything serious, but like everything else, I handled the punches as they came. I am cancer free!

Years after my surgery, I attended the THANC Foundation fundraiser event to benefit research, education, and patient support. What an amazing moment it was to be seated at a table full of head and neck cancer survivors. They were fabulous people. We all took turns telling our war stories, rolling up our sleeves, and comparing our scars—our “Badges of Courage”. It was the first time I had discussed my cancer journey with others who could truly understand. It was a beautiful thing.

Twelve years after my initial diagnosis, I am eighty years old, and feeling better than great! Never give up hope! And always believe in your surgeons! I know I do!