Dawn Wolf: Making it Through an Intense Oral Cancer Treatment

“When I got that news I just went through all the emotions—the what ifs, the why me, the anger, the grief, and the fear. But after the initial shock I had to shift my mindset.”
‐Dawn Wolf

In 2011, when my first son was not quite a year old, I had a small dysplasia, which is a precancerous lesion, on my tongue. Dr. Jeffrey Liu, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, did the surgery to remove it. Everything went really well.

He told me that if I noticed anything strange in my mouth, I should reach out to him. The dysplasia did come back, but it was never cancerous. Then my second son was born in 2014, and around the fall of 2015 I started noticing a sore spot in my mouth.

This time it wasn’t on my tongue, more on the floor of my mouth, on the left. It was about the size of a pencil eraser. It was white and red—angry looking, like an ulcer. At first it didn’t seem cancerous, so we watched and waited. But it also wasn’t improving. So in early April I had a biopsy. Right before I went in for that, I also noticed a lump on my neck. That’s when I started thinking, “Oh, this is probably not good.”

Determined to Stay Positive

A couple days after the biopsy, I got the phone call. It was squamous cell carcinoma. At first they said it was superficial, and of course I was relieved. No one wants to get a cancer diagnosis, but at least it was superficial. Then I had some other diagnostic tests done and we discovered that in fact it wasn’t superficial, it was actually much more advanced.

When I got that news I just went through all the emotions—the what ifs, the why me, the anger, the grief, and the fear. But after the initial shock I had to shift my mindset.

Dr. Liu, who specializes in head and neck surgery, did this operation too. He and his team cut the cancer out of the floor of my mouth, and then they did the neck dissection and removed my lymph nodes. For the reconstruction, they took an artery and a flap of skin from my wrist and used it to rebuild my mouth. Then they took tissue from my groin area to repair my wrist. I felt a bit like Frankenstein!

At the time all of this was going on, my older son was five and my younger son was 22 months. I knew that I had to find a way through this. There was no other option. I guess that’s denial, but I’d heard about the power of positive thinking and felt that’s what I had to do.

Despite all the challenges, the tremendous support that I received from my family and friends helped me through it all. I also received great support from my “cancer mentor,” a former patient that Fox Chase put me in touch with who was also a young mother. She shared her cancer experience with me and answered my questions. I called her before my surgery and she visited me afterwards. She’s an angel! She gave me so much hope.

Back to the Hospital

I was in the hospital for about 10 days, including two days in intensive care. They wanted to monitor me closely because any potential swelling in my mouth could affect my airway. All the nurses were awesome and I received excellent care.

After surgery, I started radiation. My course was 30 treatments over six weeks, and I was also supposed to have three infusions of high-dose chemotherapy.

The biggest side effect was the mouth sores. The radiation is cumulative, so for the first week or so it doesn’t seem that bad. You have to wear this special mask, and you can’t move your face, so that’s a little unsettling, but it’s pretty quick and you don’t actually feel any burning.

But by the third week my mouth was feeling very sore, and we were striking out on the pain relievers—I had a bad reaction to Percocet and the others weren’t really helping.

By four and a half weeks I was having a hard time. I went in for a visit with Dr. Thomas Galloway, my radiation oncologist. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t even drink water. The nurse said, “You know, I think you should come stay in the hospital.”

So for the last 10 days, that’s what I did. They were able to keep me hydrated, and they worked with the pain team to get me some relief while I completed my radiation treatment.

My oncologist, Dr. Jessica Bauman, and my care team also decided not to give me the final dose of chemo. I was very concerned about that, because I wasn’t finishing the regimen, and I was determined to do everything I could to fight the cancer. But they felt that two of the three was enough.

Back to Family Life

The treatment caused lasting damage to my mouth, but it was worth it. I’m more susceptible to mouth sores now, and I have a very, very dry mouth. I also can’t taste very well, so now I like foods that have a strong flavor, like tiramisu—it has that strong espresso flavor, so I love it.

The radiation also damaged my thyroid, so I now take medication for hypothyroidism.

I’ve had a couple of scares over the last six and a half years, but the cancer hasn’t come back. Every year without cancer, that’s a milestone.

At first I made it to a year. Then two years. Getting to that five-year anniversary, I was so happy. I would say I’m breathing easier these days, although you never really stop thinking about it.

I’m a counselor for an online school, and I really enjoy that. And I love spending time with my boys. My younger son is learning karate, which I also used to enjoy, as I have studied two different styles of karate myself. The other day he said, “Mom, can you pretend to attack me?” We have fun. It makes me excited about the future.

Learn more about treatment for head and neck cancer at Fox Chase Cancer Center.