Head and neck cancers present special challenges


Bob Riter
Bob Riter

Cornelia Rea, a professor at Tompkins Cortland Community College, recently marked the 10-year anniversary of her diagnosis of tongue cancer.

Tongue cancer falls into the broad category of head and neck cancers. Individuals with these cancers usually have surgery followed by radiation, which is sometimes combined with concurrent chemotherapy.

Treatment for any kind of cancer is no one’s idea of fun, but treatment for head and neck cancers is especially difficult. One’s ability to talk, swallow and breathe are routinely affected.

Think about that for a moment. Nearly all of us take talking, swallowing and breathing for granted.

Imagine if two or three of these basic functions were suddenly impaired or completely lost. This often happens during treatment for head and neck cancers. Some functions return with time and rehabilitation, but others don’t.

Cornelia lost 40 pounds during her treatment because she couldn’t swallow food. Like many patients with a head and neck cancer, she was fed through a tube inserted into her stomach.

To this day, eating remains a problem and she continues to use the feeding tube. It’s isolating. Eating is a social experience for most people. We so often create community by sharing a meal together.

She expected to have problems immediately after her treatment, but she wasn’t prepared for new problems to emerge five years later. Scar tissue continues to develop in her mouth, trachea and esophagus, and she’s undergone some twenty surgical procedures to remove it.

Not everyone with a head a neck cancer experiences “late-term radiation effects” like this, and many survivors of head and neck cancer eventually eat and speak normally again.

Cornelia did lose her ability to speak clearly – a significant problem for a college professor. Fortunately, TC3 has been exceptionally supportive and accommodating of her special needs. She now teaches her classes on-line and uses an iPad app to help her speak with students one-to-one. Using the telephone remains a challenge.

In spite of these challenges, Cornelia is a survivor in every sense of the word. Ten years ago, she wasn’t sure she’d still be here in 2015. She is. And she makes our community better.

This article was based on an interview Bob did with Cornelia- read more of the interview at the CRCFL website.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.
Original publication date: May 9, 2015

Bob Riter is the Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes. He can be reached at [email protected]