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Debbi: Head and Neck Cancer Survivor

Dedicated to tomorrow's arrival

I had no symptoms, no pain, and no weight loss. Sure, I was tired, but I thought it was from working all day. I was diagnosed with a parotid tumor, which is in your saliva gland and I was told that 99 percent of the time parotid tumors are benign. During surgery it was discovered that mine was a malignant tumor, which was later diagnosed as stage IV cancer.

One day I went out with my husband for a ride on his motorcycle. It was windy and after the ride I developed an earache. I scheduled an appointment with an ENT specialist who determined I did have an ear infection but he also felt a small lump behind my right ear. He wanted to X-ray it, although I didn't want to because I had had it since I was a child and it never grew. He insisted and that's when he found the tumor.

I wasn't worried when I went to see Dr. Sasaki at Yale around Thanksgiving of 2004. I told him the holidays were my favorite time of year and asked if it was OK to do the surgery in January. He ran tests, but he thought it would be OK; he thought it was benign. He's not the kind of doctor that would let you wait if he thought you were sick. It was a surprise to everyone that I was as sick as I was.

The surgery was predicted to be three hours long but it lasted more than six hours. The tumor had wrapped itself around my carotid artery. It is amazing, but you can't even see where Dr. Sasaki performed the surgery. A facial nerve had to be sacrificed, so it looked like the right side of my face had completely relaxed. They grafted a nerve from the top of my right ear into place. Over time it was supposed to regenerate and grow and pull my face up, which is what it did. If you saw me now you would never know I had facial surgery.

When my husband Kent got the phone call from the operating room telling him that I had cancer, his mom said it was like someone punched him in the stomach. He didn't say anything for 10 minutes. Three weeks after surgery I had six weeks of radiation, a total of 31 treatments, five days a week. I work at Yale-New Haven Hospital and I would go to work after the treatments. My boss described me as a pragmatist; it is what it is and I just push through things. Toward the end of my treatments I was very tired. You don't fully understand what tired is until putting one foot in front of the other is just a chore.

I've always been a happy person, and enjoy life even more so now. I love life and I always have loved life. I am approaching 10 years of cancer survivorship!  One of the first things we did when the radiation was finished in April was to go out on the motorcycle for a ride. That earache kind of saved my life.

Learn more about the Head & Neck Cancers Program