On a routine visit, your dentist spots a lesion in your mouth. Concerned, she refers you to an ear, nose and throat specialist. The results from the biopsy come back, and it’s cancer.
5 – 8 Hours
You head into the hospital for surgery, where the advanced practitioner briefs you on the journey. Surgeons at the University of Alberta Hospital remove the tumour – along with most of your lower jawbone. Five to eight hours have passed.
A second team takes over. They craft a new jawbone using part of your fibula – the small bone on your leg – and connect it to the blood supply from your neck. It comes complete with pegs to accommodate the teeth you’ll receive once the swelling goes down. When it’s over, you’ve been on the table for almost 16 hours.
- Surgeons cut out the affected piece of jawbone and scrape away the tumour.
- They put the affected bone back into the jaw, just long enough to make a wire mould. Then they remove the affected section of bone again, discarding it.
- They take the fibula, the thin bone at side of the lower leg, and form it to fit the jaw, where it takes the place of the missing jawbone. They affix it to the wire mould permanently.
3 – 14 Days
A couple of days after surgery, you move from ICU to the ward. You work with nurses, the physical therapist, the dietician, the speech language pathologist, the occupational therapist, the respiratory therapist and a social worker. For the next 10 to 14 days, your interdisciplinary team helps with movement, breathing, swallowing, nutrition and planning your hospital discharge. They discharge you with a home exercise regimen.
4 – 7 Weeks
In four to six weeks, you begin a combination of radiation and chemotherapy at the Cross Cancer Institute. The hospital refers you to the physical therapy team there, and you begin a serious rehabilitation program and attend the support group. Seven weeks later, your second phase of treatment is wrapping up.
You’re back at work. You look different but, thanks to the restoration work on your jaw and your new teeth, the changes to your appearance are much less pronounced than they would have been a decade ago. You continue to attend the support group at the U of A for head and neck cancer survivors, both for the support it gives you and to help others on the journey.