Karen Williams - Patient Story

"I really feel like the people at Fox Chase who took care of me are like my family."

— Karen Williams

With the help of surgeons at Fox Chase Cancer Center, Karen Williams beat tongue cancer and is all smiles.

Karen Williams is thankful to have her voice, and with it she tells everyone who will listen: "If you notice any kind of change on your tongue or in your mouth… especially if you are a smoker… get it checked out as quickly as possible." Karen is adamant about her advice, because she is proof that addressing a problem quickly can result in a fabulous outcome.

In August 2002, at the age of 54, Karen, a resident of Yardley, PA, noticed what looked like a white head-type pimple on her tongue. Karen had been a casual smoker for 40 years, and knew that any sign of a change in her mouth might be signaling trouble. Without hesitation, she visited an oral surgeon who biopsied the mass and delivered the news that she had carcinoma of the tongue.

Karen's friends suggested that she travel to New York for care, but she hesitated. Luckily, Karen had a niece who was working in the research department at Fox Chase Cancer Center, and she encouraged Karen to meet with the doctors in the head and neck division of the hospital.

Karen met with head and neck surgeon John A. Ridge, MD, PhD, FACS, on Sept 10, 2002. "From the moment I met Dr. Ridge I knew I would survive," she recalled. "Maybe it was because of his mannerisms, maybe it was because of his impressive schooling and his tremendous amount of knowledge . . . or maybe it was because he is so darn tall . . . but whatever it was, Dr. Ridge made me feel confident and secure about my outcome."

Faced with a surgery to remove the tumor and the area surrounding the mass—a procedure that would require the removal of over half of her tongue—Karen was not only dealing with the concern of being diagnosed with cancer, but also the possibility of post-surgical disfigurement and/or the loss of speech capabilities.

Karen credits the social workers at Fox Chase for helping her to navigate her way through all of her questions, her concerns and for allowing her to continue to feel positive about her options and her choices. She credits reconstructive surgeon Dr. Neal Topham for easing her anxiety about how she might look and be affected after the surgery.

On October 17, 2002, the day of her surgery, Dr. Ridge personally took Karen to the operating room in a wheelchair to introduce her to the team of professionals that would spend the next twelve hours removing the cancer and rebuilding her mouth with arteries and tissue from her left wrist. "I remember 19 or so doctors, nurses and support folks prepping for me. They all stopped what they were doing and gave me a big team cheer. It made me feel great that they were all on my side," said Karen.

Karen's reconstructive surgery was performed by Dr. Topham. One of the things Karen recollects fondly was how attentive her doctors were. "Dr. Topham himself would come in every day and change the dressing on my wrist. I know it sounds crazy, but I really do feel like the people at Fox Chase who took care of me are like my family," she said.

It has been almost eight years since Karen quit smoking and took her first step towards becoming cancer free. Her cancer was removed, the floor of her mouth was rebuilt, she underwent speech and physical therapy and six weeks of direct radiation, and today the only mild side-effect that she encounters is a bit of dry mouth in the morning—due to the removal of salivary glands during the surgery.

Karen jokes, "eight years after having half of my tongue removed and my mouth reconfigured with part of my wrist, I find spitting on someone during casual conversation (accidentally, of course) extremely rewarding. It means everything is in working order!"

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