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The patient: Randy, 50
The diagnosis: Tongue cancer
Randy’s story: It was during an annual check-up with his regular doctor that Randy — a pastor in a Sierra Vista-based church — was stunned by the possibility that a sore spot under his tongue might be cancer. Having never taken part in activities such as drinking or smoking that are considered common causes of mouth cancer, being told he had stage 4 oral cancer was quite a shock.
Just months before Randy was diagnosed, The University of Arizona Medical Center happened to bring on a new team of head and neck cancer surgeons, Drs. Audrey Erman and Thomas Gernon — the only ENT cancer specialists of their kind in Tucson. Previously, patients like Randy would have had to go outside of Tucson for reconstructive surgery or would have been left disfigured. Using veins and arteries from his wrist, they not only removed the cancer, but rebuilt 50 percent of his tongue that would have been affected and damaged by the removal of cancerous tissue.
With a 2.2-centimeter tumor in his tongue and two more in his neck, Randy entered surgery braced for the fact that it would take nearly a year of therapy to fully recover his ability to speak. But because of the reconstruction available to him at UAMC, he said a labored but quick word to his congregation the weekend after surgery, and preached his first sermon six weeks later.
In his words: “When my doctor first said ‘We have to rule out cancer,’ it felt like a death sentence. When I left his office I sat down outside and just cried. I thought, I’m going to make my wife a widow before she’s 50. I had recently passed four regular cancer screenings and just months later this happened. It happened fast and none of us saw it coming. During the nights I spent in ICU I would wake up anxious, but my night nurse Yvonne would always be there, peering round the corner to make sure I was ok. I called her my guardian angel. Angie was the nurse on staff during the day, who was just like a cheerleader. I got up and walked around the ICU my second day purely because she was cheering for me. What I saw at UAMC was a team. From the person doing maintenance to the doctor and everyone in between, they were a well-functioning team. I felt that everyone that helped care for me really cared for me—I was an individual, not just a job."