Navigating the challenges of head and neck cancer provides fresh perspective on life
Posted: April 20, 2023 | Word Count: 813
As a successful global software services consultant, Ashwin was career-driven and passionate about his job. Those feelings were derailed when, at age 45, he was diagnosed with head and neck cancer and experienced a grueling path through treatment and recovery. Knowing that he is made of more than his head and neck cancer, Ashwin did not let the disease define him. While he still loves his work today, Ashwin has a new appreciation for family, travel and the simple things in life.
Ashwin’s journey started in 2015 when he noticed a sore on his tongue that wasn’t healing properly. He visited an oral surgeon who biopsied the lesion, and was told it was nothing to be concerned about. But four years later, it still hadn’t healed. This bothered his wife, Becky, who works as a registered dental assistant and is particularly attuned to oral health.
She urged him to visit a different oral surgeon for a second opinion, and this time the prognosis was very different: cancer.
Navigating challenges associated with head and neck cancer
Ashwin and Becky visited three different oral surgeons while exploring what to do next, and were surprised to find that each had a different outlook and suggested approach to treatment. Ultimately, they went with Dr. Mark Urken, a surgeon and otolaryngologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center, who provided a positive prognosis and least invasive plan to reconstruct part of Ashwin’s jaw and tongue.
Working with Dr. Urken instilled hope in both Ashwin and Becky, but the road to Ashwin’s recovery was far more challenging than they had anticipated.
Post-op, Ashwin experienced swelling on his neck and face, affecting his ability to speak. Becky stayed by Ashwin’s side during the eight days he was in the intensive care unit and learned how to communicate with him in alternative ways.
"After surgery for many types of head and neck cancer, it’s common to experience a variety of side effects that may compromise a person’s ability to communicate," said Dr. Urken. "Even after recovery, activities that may have been previously simple can become increasingly difficult, such as sharing meals with others or talking with friends. While each individual with head and neck cancer encounters unique challenges, they do not need to face them alone."
Today, Ashwin and Becky are aiming to help other people impacted by head and neck cancer feel less isolated through Made of More, a new educational awareness campaign created in partnership with Head and Neck Cancer Alliance (HNCA), Support for People with Oral and Head and Neck Cancer (SPOHNC), Thyroid, Head And Neck Cancer (THANC) Foundation, CancerCare and Eisai Inc. Made of More is designed to help individuals impacted by head and neck cancer band together as one community and show they are made of more than just their disease.
Resources and support are available
Head and neck cancer is made up of a diverse and rare group of cancers located in different areas of the head and neck, which may include the mouth, lips, tongue, nasal cavity, larynx (voice box), throat, sinuses and lymph nodes, among others. This cancer accounts for nearly 4% of all cancers in the United States, and an estimated 66,920 new cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2023.
People living with head and neck cancer may feel isolated due to the unique set of challenges often caused by their treatment. Made of More strives to foster connection, education and support by featuring powerful stories of people affected by head and neck cancer, information on the disease and resources for the broader patient and caregiver community. Learn more at MadeofMore.com.
“Living with the emotional impact of head and neck cancer and the effects of its treatment can be particularly difficult, but patients and their loved ones should know that they’re not in this alone,” said Erika Rauscher, Executive Director of the THANC Foundation. “There’s an entire community of survivors, caregivers and health care providers ready and willing to provide support."
Ashwin's life today
Today, Ashwin's jaw and face are healed, and following intensive speech therapy, he’s able to speak and communicate comfortably again. He and Becky are spending as much time as possible traveling with their two kids. They love European road trips, researching destinations and enjoying the historical aspects unique to places abroad. They fully embrace the moments they can share together.
Ashwin urges others going through head and neck cancer to try to gain perspective and keep a positive mindset: “You’re not alone. Trust everything will be alright and trust your doctors.” Reflecting on the experience, he said: “Don't wait for things to happen. Life is too short and things come at you at great speed, so take every opportunity you have to live your life at the fullest and do what you love to do.”