“The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Miriam-Webster describes grief as a "deep sadness especially for the loss of someone or something loved." Indeed, our minds usually wander to the tragic loss of a very special person in our life, and unfortunately, too many of us have had the misfortune of experiencing this tragedy first hand.
Over the last year I have come to learn more about other forms of loss--loss that occurs amongst the living. In particular, I have been honored to work with a group of Head and Neck Cancer survivors, and they have taught me about various shades of loss as they journey through their battle against this brutal cancer.
Head and neck cancer can include cancers of the esophagus, thyroid or salivary glands, voice box, sinus, mouth, tongue or lips. Some victims of Head and Neck Cancer are former smokers and/or alcohol consumers, however there is an increasing number of people with HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) who are non-smokers and develop this disease. This is the same virus associated with the development of cervical cancer in women. Firefighters can also fall victim, and acid reflux disease is also cited as a cause for this brutal cancer. Head and Neck Cancer is the 6th most common cancer in the
I have discovered that Head and Neck Cancer survivors face a number of losses. Many must endure radical surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. In doing so, aspects of daily life that we take for granted can be severely affected, including breathing, eating, speaking and appearance.
A poignant example is the cancer patient who has much of their tongue removed. Tissue from the patient’s forearm is transplanted onto the tongue to assist with swallowing. Can you imagine trying to eat and talk with this newly-formed mouth? As a result, many patients grieve the loss of the “simple things” like enjoying an ice cream cone, or sipping a refreshing soda on a scorching hot day (which may cause a burning sensation). Taste buds are altered and are never the same. Some have to receive a feeding tube temporarily, while others never regain the ability to swallow.
Our society seems to revolve around celebrations that include eating or drinking. Think of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner without the turkey…or birthdays without cake. Even “going for coffee” is an issue. Those survivors that are able to continue swallowing often take a very long time to eat, or require copious amounts of water to avoid choking because their saliva glands are no longer adequate. They are at risk of aspiration and illness such as pneumonias, not to mention recurrence of the dreaded cancer.
In addition to these challenges, the radiation therapy can cause tooth decay, resulting in the loss of teeth. and sometimes requiring radical dental reconstructive surgery. Patients can go for months or even years without any teeth. And if the cancer gets into the jaw bone, it must be removed and eventually reconstructed with bones grafted from the leg.
The oral cancer patient also faces a change in voice and ability to speak. Some people might wrongly assume they are intoxicated on the phone. For many, their voice and pronunciation is never the same.
Thus, Head and Neck Cancer patients are “faced” with many losses; including eating, drinking, socializing, talking and appearance. Undoubtedly these concerns can affect one’s self-esteem, sexuality and everyday functioning. I am honored to be part of a support group that helps these patients cope with these losses and discover the new beautiful person they are becoming.
Yes I know Movember just happened and many of you are tired of cancer fundraising. But Manuary is just as important. Men grow beards to cover the remnants of their oral surgery—women aren’t quite so lucky in being able to cover up their scars. I am wearing a beard in my picture to raise awareness. Won’t you help me raise funds to support treatment of this brutal, less-known cancer? Please visit www.manuary.ca, go the to "Donate in Edmonton" link and click in my name: "Cindy Haugen." A receipt will automatically be sent to you for your generous donation.