'Little moments' of life make the struggles of survivorship worth it

Allison Kartes is a survivor of head/neck cancer and leukemia.
Allison Kartes is a survivor of head/neck cancer and leukemia. Allison Kartes

Hi there, my name is Allison.

When I was 34 years old, I discovered a white lump on the back of my tongue.

I was perfectly healthy, no concerns at all, no history of cancer. I went in to see my primary care doctor. She immediately put me on medication for 10 days.

I returned because it didn't go away. The doctor was very concerned. She told me to see an ear, nose and throat doctor.

(Of course, it took two weeks to get into see him.) He did a biopsy and, yes, it was cancer.

We had just had our daughter Maddie, and we were in the middle of relocating from Washington state to Arizona. My husband had already moved after our daughter finished school, and he was planning on coming back for us.

Truthfully I really wasn't that concerned, because I was very healthy. The doctor set up surgery to remove the back part of my tongue. He told me good news: "All margins were clear." I will remember those words forever.

Three months to the day, I found a lump in my neck. I went back to the doctor. He did a needle biopsy and it came back cancerous again.

I've been asked many times why didn't I have [additional] treatment the first time. It was never offered, unfortunately.

We immediately moved to Arizona and found an amazing doctor who took me under his wing and took amazing care of me. In June 2003, I had a radical neck dissection and three weeks later I was starting treatment. My doctor told me: “It came back once, it will come back again. We need to stay on top of it.” I had nine rounds of chemo with 36 radiation treatments. At the end I felt like death, but I survived.

Surviving cancer isn't fun — especially this one. I can't swallow normally. I have constant headaches from the neck. And last year I had to have all my teeth removed due to the decay from radiation. My current dentures don't stick due to the dry mouth, and my only option is to do two implants to secure my lower denture, but the radiation may have damaged my bone. I am living on a soft-food diet, and I am going back next week to see a different dentist.

Also, the cherry on top of my survivorship: Five years ago I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. Luckily I only have to take a pill twice a day — yes!

Surviving hasn't been easy. In fact, it's been very difficult. But little moments — like dress shopping with my daughter for her wedding — make it so worth fighting. I am very blessed!

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