Tongue Cancer: Conversation with a Survivor

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Guest: Michelle Clifton - Cancer Survivor

Host: Linda Austin, M.D. – Psychiatry

Dr. Linda Austin: I am Dr. Linda Austin. I am talking today with Michelle Clifton. Michelle is a cancer survivor. Michelle, I understand you had a cancer of the tongue.

Michelle Clifton: Yeah, right.

Dr. Linda Austin: How old are you now Michelle?

Michelle Clifton: 26.

Dr. Linda Austin: And how old were you when you first got your diagnosis?

Michelle Clifton: It was two weeks before my 25th birthday.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: And how did you figure out that you had something going on, did you see it or did you tend to see, what happened?

Michelle Clifton: I had a sore in my mouth for about six to nine month. I had Invisalign braces and I kept seeing my orthodontist because I was concerned about the sore and it wasn’t going away, but we both figured it was because of the Invisalign, so I had the Invisalign braces removed and I saw an oral surgeon and had a biopsy.

Dr. Linda Austin: And that was when it was figured out. I wonder if that’s a common story that people will have a sore that goes on and on and they think it’s something else and then it turns to be more serious.

Michelle Clifton: I think so. I think a lot of the time it’s brought on brought on by trauma as well, a sore in your mouth for a very long time and it just progresses into more.

Dr. Linda Austin: Into something more serious and more and significant. You ended up coming to the Hollings Cancer Centre here at MUSC, how did that happen, how did you get sent here?

Michelle Clifton: My oral surgeon Dr. Chu called Dr. Day the moment we got the biopsy back and I saw the whole tumor team that very same day.

Dr. Linda Austin: Who all was on the team, what kinds of people?

Michelle Clifton: See if I can remember that far back, Dr. Day, two of his nurses, Sanders and Betty, I also saw Dr. Hornig, Dr. Hoy and I am sure there were many, many more.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: So it was really a whole team?

Michelle Clifton: Oh! It was traumatic day, so I don’t remember much of it.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: Those were scary day for you.

Michelle Clifton: Yeah.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: Now how long after that, I know you had some surgery after that, how long after that did you have your surgery?

Michelle Clifton: I had surgery the following week on that Wednesday, so it was four days, I had to wait.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: And that was done by Dr. Day.

Michelle Clifton: Dr Day and Dr. Hoy

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: Tell us about that surgery, what happened?

Michelle Clifton: I had, it’s called a partial glossectomy. I had half of my tongue removed and it was reconstructed with skin and a vein from my abdomen.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: How long did that surgery take?

Michelle Clifton: It was between thirteen and fourteen hours.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: Well, that’s a long surgery. How long was the recovery from that?

Michelle Clifton: I was in the hospital for about eight days and I was up on my feet probably four days after the surgery, eating took a little bit longer, but it was about, I would say a good three weeks before I had a little bit of energy and was able to get up and move around on my own.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: Did you need any other treatment after that?

Michelle Clifton: I had nine weeks of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: Which did you have first?

Michelle Clifton: I had them simultaneously.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: You had them at the same time. So, you must have been out of work I would imagine during that time.

Michelle Clifton: I tried to go back part-time right when I started radiation and chemotherapy and it worked for a little while until towards the end, they got kind of rough.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: That’s quite a journey for a young person to take. If you were to have some more through someone else who might be listening to this who is about to go on that journey or may be they are on it already, what might you say?

Michelle Clifton: I would tell them to surround themselves with positive people and to have a positive attitude and a positive outlook because I truly believe that the people I surrounded myself with and the attitude that I decided to have really brought me forward.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: It’s really about finding loving people who are moving forward with you.

Michelle Clifton: And supportive people who understand or who try to understand, how you are feeling and what you are going through, and who are willing to pick you up if ever you might feel like you are falling.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: Yeah and I would think also there might be a message here about the importance of screening and taking things seriously when they appear.

Michelle Clifton: I think mine was overlooked because of my age; because I am so young, I don’t think it never crossed my mind that I could have had cancer, so I think had I been aware that it does affect people of my age I probably would have been a little more proactive about it.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: And you were not a smoker, is that correct?

Michelle Clifton: I smoked socially for a few years, but nothing major.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: And it’s probably not connected to that ?

Michelle Clifton: Right.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: As I understand. Well, what a great story especially since now you are working again and what else is going on in your life?

Michelle Clifton: Working, having roommates, working two jobs actually. I just you know hanging out with my friends and my family and?

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: Living a normal life?

Michelle Clifton: Trying to be a 26-years-old.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: Yeah and you are back in school, I understand.

Michelle Clifton: Hmm.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: So you have a lot - you have a very full play, you have a lot going on.

Michelle Clifton: I do, I do.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: It’s so important to remember that when you are going through treatment that as typical does that must have been, it is temporary and you will get through treatment and life then will start to feel normal again, but it just takes time

Michelle Clifton: For a while I - my girlfriends would come over and talk about their hair and the guy they were seeing and it, just none of it, ever mattered to me because I just had bigger issues when really they were trying to get my mind off of the big issues on to that, just the regular things that normal people worry about and I never thought that would ever happen, but now I am back to worrying about boys and hair?. and that’s normal thing the girls worry about.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: And that’s how it should be. Well, you look wonderful.

Michelle Clifton: Thank you.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: And thank you so much for being with us today. Now upcoming is the head and neck screening day, I believe, here at the medical university and across the country. Are you going to be participating in that?

Michelle Clifton: Most certainly.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: What will you be doing?

Michelle Clifton: I am not sure yet. They haven’t assigned me a role, but I will be going to different elementary schools and talking to the kids about smoking and drinking and taking care of themselves and helping out wherever they want me to do.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: Michelle Clifton, thank you so much for talking to us today and good luck to you.

Michelle Clifton: Thank you.

Dr. Linda Austin, M.D: Bye-bye.

Announcer: If you have any questions about the services or programs offered at the Medical University of South Carolina or if you would like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please call MUSC Health Connection at (843) 792-1414.

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