Fight for Life: Teen Battles Oral Cancer

In a 16-year-old athlete, mouth cancer struck with a vengeance. When Quintin Roberts, a star basketball player and avid horseback rider, was diagnosed with the disease, he was confronted with his mortality. But with his faith, family, friends, therapy dog and an extensive multidisciplinary cancer team, he pulled through. Then he re-shaped his career plans to follow in the footsteps of his compassionate care providers.

Raised on a horse farm founded by his grandmother, Quintin has travelled around the country participating in horse shows and winning competitions. While maintaining his grades and pressing for a basketball scholarship, he helped to care for horses on the farm in Romulus.

But his life would be altered in 2020 when he noticed a little bump on the roof of his mouth. A few months later, his doctor sent him to a Henry Ford specialist who performed a biopsy.

Quickly, Quintin and his parents met with Steven Chang, M.D., an expert for head and neck cancer, who discussed the findings. Quintin was diagnosed with early stage sarcoma, an extremely rare cancer – especially for a teenager, and especially because it occurred in Quintin’s soft palate.

“The diagnosis was an utter shock and unbelievable,” says Marggie Roberts, Quintin’s mom. “It was absolutely horrific and scary. It was like it wasn’t happening.”

When she gathered her wits, she turned her fear into support. She told her son that he was “strong enough to defeat the cancer and nothing would stop him.”

Working with the multidisciplinary team including a medical oncologist, Dr. Chang coordinated the treatment plans. “There was significant discussion around giving chemotherapy first or going straight to surgery,” says Dr. Chang. “Then we had to coordinate with the specialists to reconstruct his palate and make sure everything was functioning.”

At Henry Ford Hospital in downtown Detroit, Dr. Chang and the team would start with surgery. After the cancer was removed, Suhael Momin, M.D., a specialist in otolaryngology, would perform three additional procedures within 10 days to reconstruct the palate so Quintin could eat, drink, swallow and speak normally.

“The palate serves a critical function in breathing and speech. It is also very important for preventing food and drink from coming through the nose,” says Dr. Chang.

While Quintin was hospitalized, Marggie stayed with her son during the day, and her husband took the night shift. “We tried to stay as positive as possible,” says Marggie. “We kept moving forward every day. We figured we were one day closer to it being over.”

When Quintin was in the greatest pain, his parents were astonished by his confidence. “Quintin was an unusual case. He had to give us courage and strength, more than we did him,” says Marggie. “He was strong throughout this entire thing, mentally and physically.”

Says Quintin, “I know that God never gives you too much to bear. And I feel as if I was chosen by God to do great things in life. I feel like I don’t ever quit anything.”

To avoid exposing Quintin to other illnesses, his younger brother Cash continued to attend online classes long after the COVID restrictions ended.

“Cash was extremely supportive the whole time,” says Marggie. “His life came to a standstill, along with the rest of ours.”


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Because Quintin had a great affinity with animals, his parents acquired a special yellow Labrador, a therapy dog named Faith. “She had already helped another young man get through cancer,” says Marggie. During those rough days, Quintin was especially grateful to have Faith sleeping in his bedroom.

A couple months after surgery, chemotherapy began at Children’s Hospital in Detroit. The drugs caused hair loss, weight loss, fatigue and nausea. Eventually, Quintin’s treatment was transferred back to Henry Ford Health, in favor of the multidisciplinary care.

Throughout the ordeal, much support came from Quintin’s core-friend group. “They would come to see him and wear masks,” says Marggie. “They were absolutely fabulous. They made him feel like he was important and that they really cared about him a lot.”

“My friends and family kept me motivated throughout the whole thing, reminding me that I was going to be OK,” says Quintin who was fed through a feeding tube for two months. “My parents would always tell me to ‘Keep on trucking through thick and thin.’”

“I was able to keep myself busy, and I tried my hardest to stay positive through the whole thing,” says Quintin. “I just listened to what the doctors told me and stayed active. The staff took care of me extremely well, always supportive and on top of things during my treatment. They always seemed like they cared a lot about me.”

Says Marggie, “Quintin had a fabulous medical staff at Henry Ford. Dr. Chang and Dr. Momin couldn’t have been better. They were supportive and kind, everything you could possibly hope for with doctors. We could text them day or night, and they would answer. They were absolutely wonderful.”

Cancer care is more than just patient care, says Dr. Chang. “It’s about managing the expectations of caregivers, too. Having a care team specifically set up for that is important, particularly for parents of kids with cancer.”

Quintin and his family share the invaluable lessons they’ve learned: Stay positive. You are stronger than you ever thought. You can do anything you put your mind to. On the worst days, just keep moving forward. For parents, keep your kid’s spirits high and tell them they can do it!

Inspired by the compassion of his care providers, Quintin plans to earn a nursing degree. Horses will still be a part of his life, and perhaps he’ll own a horse farm. But one thing is certain. He will uplift patients with the courage and compassion he gained as a young patient while confronted with his own mortality.

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