For several months before my diagnosis I had jaw pain, but I thought it was TMJ. I had gone to a few doctors before I was diagnosed. Ultimately, I was referred to a maxillofacial surgeon for a biopsy. It came back as a Chondroblastic Osteosarcoma of the left upper jaw, a rare type of cancer diagnosis in adults.
I remember that phone call in July 2018 like it was yesterday. I was about to take my oldest daughter to her first national dance competition. I heard the word “osteosarcoma” and I knew it was bad. My husband came into the room. I told him I was not going to cry. I did not want the children to know, so I walked out the door and drove my daughter to her competition. The following week, my husband and I were on the phone trying to find an experienced and accomplished head and neck surgeon.
Less than a month later, I had a maxillectomy. After the surgery, I had difficulty swallowing pills, felt weak, had anxiety and adjusted to the change in my appearance. They removed my teeth from the upper-left side, except for my front teeth. There was a hole the size of a half-dollar in the roof of my mouth, which the obturator (mouthpiece) covered, so I could speak.
During the entire six months of chemotherapy, I was comforted by compassionate nurses. I went through six rounds of chemotherapy—each round took three days! Some days, I did not want to get out of bed. When that happened, I told myself I must live my best life to honor the people who lost their fight.
Throughout this entire journey, my doctors were able to answer my questions from their wealth of surgical experience. Their confidence reduced my anxiety. Nothing would stop me. I was going to beat cancer.
After just five months, during a follow-up MRI and PET scan, the cancer returned. It came back around my eye socket, the skull near my temple area, and in my maxillary sinus. I underwent an eleven-hour surgery. The surgeons saved my left eye, but I had double vision afterwards. The obturator was replaced with a different mouthpiece, though I no longer had a hole in the roof of my mouth. Shortly afterwards, I began six weeks of proton radiation therapy, which was much easier for my body to tolerate than chemo.
I was afraid of how my children would look at me. Would they love me or be afraid of me? It was a challenging time for my entire family. I tried to be the same mom, but with the battle I was fighting, I could not. It is impossible to describe how a cancer diagnosis also affects the people closest to you. All the while, each of my children did their best to be understanding, patient, and thoughtful.
My husband was with me during all seventeen chemotherapy treatments, holding my hand and staying positive. I would have been lost without him. You never realize how much you love someone until you’re put in this situation. He is a loving, calm, and patient man who always knew the right words to say. At my last chemotherapy session, I told him I wanted to dance in our kitchen when we got home—and we did!
I turned to my five sisters when I needed help. My friend once said, “You come from a long line of incredibly strong women in your family. You can do this.” The closeness we share cannot be put into words. Also, thanks to my sister-in-law, brother-in-law, and friends, my children stayed involved in their various activities.
To the people reading my story: focus on accomplishing one achievable goal a day. Walk as much as possible. Join a support group and talk to people who have (or had) cancer. It makes you realize all these crazy thoughts you have are normal.