Karen Williams: Beating Tongue Cancer With A Smile

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


I am thankful to have my voice, and with it I tell 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. I am adamant about my advice, because I am proof that addressing a problem quickly can result in a fabulous outcome.

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

Confident In Care

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

I met with head and neck surgeon Dr. John A. Ridge, on Sept 10, 2002. From the moment I met Dr. Ridge I knew I would survive. 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.

Facing Surgery

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 my tongue—I 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.

I credit the social workers at Fox Chase for helping me to navigate my way through all of my questions and concerns. Also for allowing me to continue to feel positive about my options and choices. I credit my reconstructive surgeon for easing my anxiety about how I might look and be affected after the surgery.

On October 17, 2002, the day of my surgery, Dr. Ridge personally took me to the operating room in a wheelchair to introduce me to the team of professionals that would spend the next twelve hours removing the cancer and rebuilding my mouth with arteries and tissue from my 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.

One of the things I recollect fondly is how attentive my doctors were. My reconstruction surgeon 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.

Cancer Free

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

I joke, 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!

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