Tongue Cancer, Pregnancy and Luck

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emily1 copy.jpgBy Emily Tickle Thomas

My name is Emily Tickle Thomas and I had cancer. I was diagnosed with oral squamous cell carcinoma in 2007 while pregnant with my fourth son. I was referred to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston by my doctor in Memphis. I had successful surgery at MD Anderson and returned for checkups there every few months for two years. I have since remained cancer-free.

I consider my cancer experience "the lucky kind" -- one surgery at MD Anderson to remove the tumor on my tongue, followed by checkups and CT scans every few months for a few years. A serious and life-changing experience, definitely, but nothing really, compared to what so many people with cancer -- friends, family and strangers -- are going through every single day.

I had "a place" on my tongue biopsied a number of times over several years. It would heal after each biopsy, then show up again a year or so later. Each time the pathology report revealed abnormal cells, but I was assured that "It was probably nothing. Don't worry about it." So that is what I did, until the next time the ulcer began to bother me.

By this time, I was pregnant with our fourth son and was advised to put off a more invasive laser surgery as long as possible into the pregnancy.

Lucky diagnosis
Fortunately, my doctor opted to take a biopsy instead of just the planned laser removal. The day after Mother's Day 2007, we got the call. The biopsy showed that I had oral squamous cell carcinoma. During that very first phone call, my doctor said that he had already placed a call to his colleague, Dr. Eduardo Diaz in the Head and Neck Department at MD Anderson in Houston, to get the process started of me being seen there.

Immediately, my husband and I were overwhelmed: my pregnancy; our already-a-handful three sons; the process of moving into a new house; and  now cancer. Cancer. I could barely say it out loud.

Within two weeks, we left our boys with their grandparents and we were in Houston meeting with a team of doctors to determine a treatment plan. There was talk of radiation and neck dissection to remove lymph nodes. Taking the baby early. The possibility of chemo.

Lucky treatment

My second surgery within a month's time, this time to remove the cancer, was scheduled for the last day of May. I was 27 weeks pregnant.

I woke up to the fetal heart monitor thumping and no incisions in my neck. Dr. Diaz was able to remove all of the cancer.

As I said, I call my cancer experience "the lucky kind" because my scars are on the inside and I didn't endure weeks of radiation or months of chemo like so many people with cancer do. I didn't lose my hair. I didn't lose my ability to talk or swallow. It changed me, but my experience was a journey, not a battle.

Four years later, I am a healthy wife and mother to four sons. I no longer make the trip to MD Anderson for checkups. It is never far from my thoughts, whether I am recommending a friend who has been diagnosed or simply counting it among my many blessings.

Dr. Diaz's physician assistant, Jennifer Alpard, was always supportive during the time I was his patient. I still keep in touch with her via email and want to thank her for the encouragement.

Emily has recently started a nonprofit organization inspired by a simple act of kindness  shown to her family during her first visit to MD Anderson. The Cancer Card Xchange collects and distributes gift cards to cancer patients simply to brighten their day. To find out how to get involved, go to In her rare free time, she also blogs about life with four sons at

Photo by: Kyle Kurlick with The Commercial Appeal


I love your blog post and can identify with many of the things you had to say. I was totally surprised by a diagnosis of brain cancer. However, I had successful surgery and now, more than two years past that epic life event, I am doing very well. I got a dose of that same brand of luck you speak of - and, I am forever grateful to those who cared for me: doctors, nurses, my entire medical team, my family, my friends and my work colleagues. What a wonderful world!

17 people like this post on Facebook/mdanderson and many of them left comments. Brenda Bolin: Jones great Hospital, that is where I went and still go back for check ups.Keli Murphy Forristal: Thank you for your story. The card program looks great! My parents just left for Houston yesterday. My Dad has stage IV Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the throat. He starts 7 weeks of radiation/chemo today. I wish he could have skipped the chemo/radiation like you. Its so hard with them so far away....Kellie Bland: My dad was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma almost a year ago. He is preparing in Sept. to make his second 3 mos checkup at MDA. So looking forward to the day when he no longer needs to make those trips to Houston! So thankful for the "family" that comes along with a cancer diagnosis...but even more thankful for the "family" that comes from our healing God! Thank You Jesus that my dad is cancer free and thank you Jesus for the treatment he received at MD Anderson!Jean Godisgood Faithful: TO GOD BE THE GLORY! GOD WILL PUT YOU IN THE HANDS OF MD ANDERSON THE BEST IN THE WORLD JUST AMAZING WHAT GOD CAN DO!!! THANKS FOR SHARING CANCER IS HISTORY PRAISE REPORT GOD IS GOOD!Keli Murphy Forristal: Kellie, how long was his treatment ? did he have chemo and radiation?

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