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Wendy: Head and Neck Cancer Survivor

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When Wendy McCabe’s dentist recommended that she have a biopsy done on a growth spotted at the base of her tongue during a routine cleaning, she didn’t think anything of it. However, when the results came back as cancer, she was shocked. Her first reaction was to ask, “Am I going to die?” Her second reaction was to assemble her support network and take action.

Her support network consisted of her husband and her sister. They went right to work and had her scheduled for appointments at both Smilow Cancer Hospital and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. For Wendy, it was easier to leave everything in their hands and focus all her energy on staying positive. Her first appointment was at Smilow with Dr. Benjamin Judson, Assistant Professor of Surgery (Otolaryngology). After weighing all of her options, she decided Smilow was the right place for her. She immediately felt comfortable with Dr. Judson, and enjoyed the ease with which she could get to Smilow and preferred the calming environment.

After viewing the tumor with an endoscope, Dr. Judson commented that he was surprised her dental hygienist had spotted anything at all; Wendy had no symptoms. The tumor was very small, and thankfully was caught early. Her official diagnosis was a stage II base of tongue squamous cell carcinoma. “I had smoked in the past and am sure that’s most likely what caused the cancer to develop. I focused on doing everything the doctor told me, and stayed off the internet. Dr. Judson made me feel very confident that everything was going to be alright, and that was enough for me,” said Wendy.

It was decided that Wendy would undergo transoral robotic surgery, a minimally invasive approach to treating cancers of the head and neck. Robotic surgery allows the surgeon to see and reach the tumor and remove it with minimal side effects. This procedure is not available at any other cancer center in Connecticut, and at only a few centers in the country. Dr. Judson has been performing transoral robotic surgery at Smilow Cancer Hospital for a year and a half, and has treated 16 patients using the technique.

“The side effects are generally much less than the alternative treatments. Patients usually spend 2-5 days in the hospital following the treatment due to a sore throat and difficulty swallowing,” commented Dr. Judson. “The surgery is done under general anesthesia and a retractor is used to retract open the mouth and the robot arms and endoscope are passed through the mouth in order to visualize and access parts of the throat not otherwise reachable without the robot.”

Wendy also had to have lymph nodes removed from her neck to make sure the cancer had not spread. When asked if she would be okay with having a scar, she replied that she didn’t care as long as they made sure everything cancerous was removed from her body. Wendy has experienced no long term side effects from the treatment. At first she experienced numbness and loss of taste, but those went away. “Cooking is my passion and my greatest fear was that my sense of taste would not return, but everything has gone back to normal, and I am back to cooking. This was as positive an experience as I could have expected. Everyone from the nurses to the reception staff were amazing and I never had to wait for my tests or appointments, which made things a lot easier on me,” Wendy commented.

Every four months Wendy sees Dr. Judson for a follow-up and she just had her one year chest x-ray, which showed no signs of cancer. Wendy commented that she is more nervous now going for her annual mammograms and appointments, but is diligent about it. “I could not have gotten through this experience without the support of my husband and sister. They took care of everything for me so that I could focus on getting better,” said Wendy. “It’s amazing the advances that have been made in the treatment of cancer. My first complaint when I woke up from my surgery was that my back hurt from lying still for so long, and that was amazing to me. I cannot thank Dr. Judson and his team enough.”

Learn more about the Head & Neck Cancers Program