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In the spring of 2014, Michelle Wilson was experiencing a discomfort in her mouth that was persistent enough to become a concern, especially with an upcoming knee surgery for her torn meniscus. Worried that recovering from her surgery would make it difficult to see her dentist, Michelle chose to make an appointment, anticipating that her dentist would resolve the issue before her procedure.
Unfortunately, these expectations left her completely unprepared for what would ensue.
Michelle’s dentist took x-rays and saw nothing wrong, although, he suggested that she return to be fitted for braces or a mouth guard after her surgery. Determined to get a jump start, Michelle picked up a mouth guard on her way home. However, try as she might, Michelle could not keep the mouth guard in without it causing immediate pain.
When Michelle awoke the next morning, she discovered a quarter-sized legion on her tongue. When she showed the lesion to her primary care physician, with whom she already had an appointment, he warned her that it could be cancerous and encouraged her to return to her dentist who immediately referred her to an oral surgeon to perform a biopsy.
“I prayed a lot,” says Michelle. “I was in shock.”
Immediately after her biopsy, Michelle left for Florida to spend time with her dying brother. On May 28, 2014, just days after her brother’s passing, Michelle returned home distracted from her own medical issues. Since she had not heard from the oral surgeon who had performed her biopsy, she assumed all was well. However, when she called her oral surgeon, he was apologetic that she had to find out this way.
Michelle had been diagnosed with stage three oral cancer.
“If it wasn’t for the mouth guard, I never would have found out about the oral cancer,” says Michelle.
Michelle’s husband, who was with her when she received the diagnosis, was the first to find out and, shortly after, she called her children to inform them.
Following her diagnosis, Michelle was referred to Tamer Ghanem, M.D. Ph.D., Chief of the Division of Head and Neck Surgery at Henry Ford Health System, to discuss her treatment plan. Wasting no time, Dr. Ghanem made sure that Michelle was set up with an appointment for the next day. After candidly informing her of all treatment options, Dr. Ghanem was sure to ask Michelle if she, or any of her family members, had any questions. Michelle knew then that she had made the right choice in Dr. Ghanem. He was honest, personal and recommended an aggressive treatment to give her the best chance for survival.
“He was honest with me,” recalls Michelle. “He let me know that there was a chance that I could lose my tongue, voice and ability to speak.”
Michelle, however, was as adamant as Dr. Ghanem was aggressive.
“I told him that, no matter what, I wasn’t coming home with anything in me,” says Michelle. “No feeding tubes.”
During surgery, Michelle lost a third of her tongue, 50 percent of the floor of her mouth and, through a procedure called a neck dissection, her neck lymph nodes were removed.
“In order for Ms. Wilson to retain the ability to properly swallow and annunciate, we reconstructed her tongue with skin from her forearm which allows her to function remarkably well,” says Dr. Ghanem.
After nine days in the hospital, Michelle was ready to go home with nothing in her.
Unfortunately, it would not be the last time that Michelle was grateful for Dr. Ghanem’s aggressiveness.
During routine imaging surveillance, Dr. Ghanem noticed a suspicious mass in one of Michelle’s kidneys that was concerning. After insisting on additional scans, Dr. Ghanem referred Michelle to Craig Rogers, M.D., a Henry Ford Urologist who specializes in kidney cancer surgery.
Almost three years after her last radiation therapy for oral cancer, Michelle was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
Fortunately, Dr. Rogers was able to perform a robotic partial nephrectomy. However, successfully removing the cancerous tumor required completely removing one of Michelle’s kidneys.
Despite separate bouts with two different types of cancer, Michelle never surrendered or succumbed to the pain and discomfort that her treatments caused.
“I never gave up hope and I certainly wasn’t going to let cancer win,” says Michelle.
Instead, Michelle has channeled the empathy and optimism that she received from Dr. Ghanem and her other physicians towards helping others who are going through what she went through. In addition to being a two-time mentor for Imerman's Angels, a one-on-one cancer support community, Michelle was also instrumental in the development of a Henry Ford Head and Neck Cancer Support Group for those who lived in her area and had received diagnoses similar to her own.
“The greatest joy in this profession is seeing patients return to their normal lives after a successful treatment,” says Dr. Ghanem. “Ms. Wilson has done that and taken it a step further.”
“I don’t preach on it, but I try to spread more awareness on oral cancer,” says Michelle. “I’m trying to give back any way I can, because I’m thankful for what I have.”