Diana H.

Head and Neck Cancer - Stage 4


Since all my care team worked in close proximity and communicated consistently, it was really nice that I didn’t have to repeat myself or tell each one the same thing six different times. I was having difficulty with my speech, and this showed me the value of a multidisciplinary team working together.

People tell me I am lucky to be alive. I believe this to be true. My life was pretty typical until I was diagnosed with cancer. Then I went through the toughest fight of my life. I know I am blessed to be here today.

I was born in Kansas, and I’ve lived in Missouri for most of my adult years. I worked as a graphic artist for Hallmark Cards until 2000. When my mother was diagnosed with bronchial cancer, I retired to care for her. After a courageous battle, she passed away in 2001.

I missed my mother; however, I was trying to adjust and settle into enjoying retirement. I liked spending time gardening and working on my photography. I am an artist, so I am always tinkering and creating. My favorite project is making greeting cards from my photographs.

Off and on for a while, I had been seeing an out-of-town doctor. I had several concerning symptoms that I hoped to have addressed. My voice sounded funny, and I was having difficulty hearing. I was treated for allergies.

Then one day, I decided I didn’t want to make the drive out of town anymore, and I went in to see a new primary care physician. That doctor felt I needed further follow-up for my issues and recommended I see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. After telling that doctor my symptoms, I completed a biopsy in August 2009.

The doctor called me a couple days later and asked that I come into the office. I knew that wasn’t a great sign, so I asked my roommate and friend, Patti, to come with me. It was in the office that I got the devastating news that I had cancer. The ENT told me that I had a surgery scheduled for the following day to do a radical neck dissection, where they would remove my lymph nodes, one of my jugular veins and part of my tongue. I felt overwhelmed, and I was hesitant to rush into a decision this important. I was still trying to process the diagnosis. So, I told them I needed time to think, and then I decided to get a second opinion.

I didn’t stop at just seeing another doctor; I saw many more. Most told me I should do treatment first and then surgery. Then I saw a commercial for Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA).* I called, and after getting more information, I made an appointment for an initial evaluation.

Everything I wanted in one place

It was a five-hour drive from my house to the CTCA® hospital in Tulsa. Walking in the doors was incredible. I immediately felt and knew that the focus here was all about the patient. I got to meet my care team, and I immediately connected with them. I met with a medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist, along with other nurses and clinicians. Everyone wanted to know my opinion and how I was doing. It was such a relief to be asked, and to know that I had a say in my treatment.

Since all my care team worked in close proximity and communicated consistently, it was really nice that I didn’t have to repeat myself or tell each one the same thing six different times. I was having difficulty with my speech, and this showed me the value of a multidisciplinary team working together.

One doctor told me not to give up. Another clinician was so supportive and told me, “This is doable.” They all gave me confidence that I had a chance of survival. I decided at that point to treat at CTCA; it was the best option for me. With all my fears, concerns and hopes in mind, my care team presented me with several treatment options. My treatment plan included chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I then had to get a feeding tube, and the only thing I could consume orally was liquids.

I got really sick from the chemotherapy. The radiation was targeted so that it was localized to reduce damage to health cells. However, the adverse effects of these cancer treatments were tough. I ended up as an in-patient at the CTCA hospital. I was given total parenteral nutrition (TPN), a method of feeding that bypasses the gastrointestinal tract. The fluids were injected into a vein to provide most of the nutrients my body needed.

Personalized care

I was weak and sick, but I wasn’t ready to give up, and neither was my care team. I fought to get better and continue on with my treatments. I lost over 30 pounds during treatment. I stayed in Tulsa until Thanksgiving Day 2009, when I finally completed my treatments and went home. What should have been weeks ended up taking three months. My care team worked tirelessly to help me through every step of my journey.

While my cancer treatment was over, my recovery was just beginning. I went to speech therapy to do exercises to strengthen my tongue. They would watch my swallow technique and help with my dry mouth. I got through the hard work and tough times with my friend, Patti, by my side. I couldn’t have done it without her.

I had the feeding tube for almost four years. The doctors and nurses worked with me so that I knew how to feed myself. I quickly learned that if I did it too fast, I would vomit. Through trial and error, I decided that nighttime feedings worked best for me, and my care team supported that. I went back every couple of months for check-ups and visits with my supportive care clinicians.

My feeding tube was removed along with my port. I am eating on my own. The only side effects are dry mouth and sensitivity to spicy foods. I am still able to speak clearly and hear well. Today, recent scans show no evidence of cancer, and there has been no sign of activity. In August 2019, I was thrilled to celebrate 10 years of life after my diagnosis.

I know I am here today thanks to God and CTCA. I appreciate and value the quality of life that I have. I truly believe that the whole-person approach to my cancer care is what helped get me through this journey.

My family and friends were the source from which I drew strength, and I am thankful for every day that we have together. I share my story with others to inspire and give them hope. I tell everyone I meet that they should get a second opinion and they should do it at CTCA.

I am still very much into art and sharing my expression with the world. Through my experience, I have a different lens in which I see the world. I see the beauty all around us. I use photography to capture the beauty God has given us in sunsets, rainbows and nature. I hope to share my story of positivity and hope with others.

* Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) is now City of Hope®, working together to expand patient access to personalized, comprehensive cancer care. Because this patient testimonial was written and published before CTCA® and City of Hope joined forces, mentions of legacy CTCA locations have not been updated in the interest of maintaining the patient’s original voice and story details.

August 2009
Care team