Pauline Brown

“Even through the challenges of treatment, weight loss, etc., I told myself: ‘I’m gonna gain all my strength back.'”

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.

I used to work at a hospital, as a medical assistant in Queens. I retired on March 30th, 2014. My plan for retirement was to travel the world, starting with the city of Las Vegas, which I’d never been to. Those plans were about to change. A few months later I had a wisdom tooth pulled out, and the wound never healed right. It was painful. My dentist sent me to one doctor, who referred me to another doctor (affiliated with the THANC Foundation). My new doctor took a biopsy and broke that terrible news: I had cancer in the jaw. Squamous cell carcinoma, to be specific.

I had never been sick my whole life. Not even a cold or a flu. I never even had a flu shot! And all of a sudden, I had cancer. I was in complete shock. So was my family. I was simply shocked.

On March 2nd, 2015, my doctor performed a complex surgery which involved removing the diseased part of my jaw and reconstructing it with a piece of bone borrowed from my shoulder blade. My surgical recovery wasn’t so bad, especially because I had my son and my mother come up from Baltimore to keep me company in the hospital. My sister and my cousins even came up to visit me in the hospital. It helped a lot to have family supporting me throughout my journey.

God has kept me here for a reason. Trust in God and trust your team of doctors, and you will find that you too are here for a reason.

Then came radiation therapy. I had to come to the office every day for six weeks. Four o’clock in the afternoon, every day. I didn’t feel any terrible pain, but I didn’t know that the radiation would damage my teeth so badly. Looking back, I wish I had known more about the side effects of radiation therapy. But my doctor and his assistants were extremely comforting, warm, and wonderful. They made me feel like I was part of the family. My radiation therapist was really such a good doctor.

Unfortunately, I had a CT scan that showed a metastasis to my lung, and it wasn’t clearing up. I had a biopsy which showed that this was the same cancer from my jaw bone. I had to have combined chemotherapy and radiation, and it just made me so sick. I forced myself to eat but I lost all my sense of taste. I lost a lot of weight and didn’t look like myself anymore. I lost all my hair. At one point I needed a dermatologist to clear up a skin reaction, and she too was extremely nice and helpful. I trusted my doctors throughout the treatment, and even though at times I asked “Why me?” I still trusted in God to get me through it.

I did another round of radiation therapy for a shorter period of time. I still take some chemotherapy medicine for maintenance of my lung cancer nodules. Some days I don’t have lots of energy, and I still can’t eat solid food. But I know it’s going to get better, especially once I receive some new teeth.

Once I have my new teeth, let me tell you what my first full meal is going to be: I’m going to take a big bite into some real delicious food at an authentic Italian restaurant! Lasagna, chicken parmesan, and spaghetti just aren’t the same after you put them in a blender and make a smoothie. So as soon as I have my new teeth, I am going to an authentic Italian restaurant and having myself a feast.

My grandfather was a minister. He always told us: “God will never give us anything that we can’t bear.” So you absolutely MUST stay positive. Even through the challenges of treatment, weight loss, etc., I told myself: “I’m gonna gain all my strength back.”

I’m turning 71 soon. Recently, my uncle and my daughter-in-law’s mother died on the same day. I attended both their funerals. It reaffirmed what I tell myself every single day: that God has kept me here for a reason, and “I’m gonna beat this disease!”.

My advice to those suffering from this illness or another: have faith in God and have faith in your team of doctors. You are here for a reason!