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.
When you hear the word cancer, it’s scary. I came to the United States from France in 1961. Back then, people didn’t go to the doctor regularly, especially during the war or if you didn’t have money. I didn’t know a lot about cancer before, and especially not mouth cancer. I smoked cigars for most of my life, but now I haven’t smoked in 20 years, since before my cancer surgery. I quit cold turkey. I couldn’t smoke anyways, with the radiation treatment after surgery, which was better than trying to quit on my own. Now when people smoke, you can see it everywhere. When I smell cigarette smoke, I see people push smoke out of the way and I don’t blame them.
Overall, cancer hasn’t really changed me
Over 20 years ago, I noticed something on the side of my mouth when I brushed my teeth. The side of my tongue looked like it had been cut with a knife. It was the same side that I smoked cigars out of. I decided to see a local doctor near me, but after my appointment they recommended I go to a specialist in Manhattan. 2 weeks later, I had surgery. They removed part of my tongue and took the nerve of my arm and a flap of my leg which they used to reconstruct my mouth. My thyroid was also removed for precaution. After the surgery, I felt a lot of pressure in the back of my head, but it went away after a few days. I remember going in for a haircut and having pieces of my hair fall out. Overall, recovery was fast. I spent 10 days in the hospital. My daughter was working as a nurse practitioner at the time, and she and my wife took care of me. One of the hardest parts was not being able to talk, but this only lasted a few days. After surgery, I had to have radiation treatment. It was very scary and stressful, but I had to live with it. The worst part was having to put all my food in a food processor and turn it into soup so I could eat.
18 years later and I have no problem eating. I can only chew on one side, and if you put in too much food, or it goes a little too far back in my mouth, it can be difficult. But to me, it’s normal—I don’t even think about it. Because of the surgery, my tongue is sideways in my mouth, which makes it a little difficult to pronounce some words. My shoulder is a little bit lower because the surgery lowered my muscle, but everything still works.
Overall, cancer hasn’t really changed me. I’m still scared to come to the doctor every year and I just hope every time that everything will be ok. I wish I had known how bad smoking was before, but overall I like to think I am still myself and still making the best of it. I still have my family. I visit my children and my grandchildren every week. I still get to wake up every day and say I’m still here. I have no pain anywhere in my body. I’m very active and walk for miles every day. I go dancing at least once a month. I have plenty of friends to dance with, eat with, and go out with. So far, so good. I’m getting older, but I still feel great.