Kate Brown, a San Francisco resident and graphic designer was diagnosed at the age of 32 with tongue cancer. Her treatment involved the complete removal of her tongue, which was replaced with skin grafts taken from her forearm, as well as chemotherapy and radiation. Several years later, she has relearned how to speak and eat, and works to help others with the same diagnosis.
How did you learn you had cancer?
I had a sore spot on my tongue that didn’t heal after taking antibiotics. I also had an extremely painful earache that didn’t show any inflammation when my doctor looked at it. I knew it was something more. You know but you don’t want to admit to yourself; you know your body, you know there’s something wrong.
What was it like to lose and then regain your ability to speak?
After the surgery, I woke up and couldn’t speak or eat. I had to write everything on a notepad. Afterwards, I felt sad when I first was starting to talk. I didn’t like the way I sounded and I was self-conscious when people weren’t able to understand me. It was very upsetting. I miss having a regular voice, but I care about it a lot less now. If I make someone uncomfortable that is their problem not mine.
Did you miss being able to eat?
As soon as I could drink liquid, I went out and got a good coffee. I don’t think much went down the hatch, but it was a completely euphoric moment for me. During my rehabilitation, every time I made progress with a new favorite food it was pure joy. After the radiation treatments, I have had trouble with spicy food, but I still taste [food] suprisingly well. I have mastered most food that I enjoy and for that I am forever grateful! Many people in my position cannot eat or exist on a soft diet only.
Was it hard going back to work?
I think I went back to work too early — I had only been at that job for two months, so I was nervous that I wouldn’t have a job period, so I went back and just dealt with it. It was really exhausting — my whole face would be tired — but it put me on the fast track because I had to interact with people and get back into life. They say necessity is the mother of invention.
What kept you motivated during treatment and during the recovery period?
I just wanted to be back to normal so badly. The treatments were very harsh and debilitating. I think you just want to feel good again instead of bad every day. I wanted to be able to enjoy real food and not be dependant upon a feeding tube for nutrition. I wanted to be able to eat in restaurants and socially like everyone else. With speaking, I did not want to be dependant on other people to do things for me and I wanted to express myself and contribute to conversation.
How has this experience changed your outlook on life?
I know I can face any tough situation that comes my way. I have always been an empathetic person but I am even more so now. When you have the simple pleasures in life taken away from you like eating and being able to speak, it makes you appreciate them so much more. I know how lucky I am to have survived this cancer and to have had a loving and supporting family to help me through it.
What advice can offer to others going through the same thing?
Cancer can happen to anyone. It isn’t discerning. It is a disease. Don’t waste time being angry, sad or frustrated, just work every day to improve your situation as best you possibly can. Since I have recovered, I have been a patient advocate for the oralcancerfoundation.org.