A Survivor’s Experience as an Imerman Angels Mentor
My name is Gail, and I am a head and neck cancer survivor. I was first diagnosed in 2012 when I discovered a lump on the side of my neck that wouldn’t go away. It turned out to be throat cancer; specifically, a stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of my tonsil with lymph node metastasis. I was shocked to get this diagnosis, since I hadn’t heard of it before and thought I was fairly knowledgeable about various types of cancer after spending over 20 years in the healthcare arena in a pharmacy, as a medical dietetics professional, and working in nutrition sales of oral and tube feedings for a major health care company.
After much research and second opinions, the course of treatment I chose was TORS, or robotic oral surgery, and a neck dissection to remove 34 lymph nodes, which was followed-up by radiation therapy for 6 weeks. With a limited amount of time and wishing for remission as quickly as possible, there was very little mental and physical preparation I could do for the effects and results that ensued in treating the cancer.
I was so grateful for the care I received from my entire medical team that my very good friend (who is a fellow head and neck cancer survivor) and I started a not-for-profit organization called “HeadStrong Voices for Healing” in 2018. We created it so that we can increase awareness for head and neck cancer and raise funds for cancer research while advocating for patient support services. As I have become more involved in the head and neck cancer community, I am amazed to learn about the latest research and new treatment options that have become available since my diagnosis and how changes in prevention are also evolving. In addition to my work with HeadStrong Voices for Healing, I’m also a virtual patient advisor for the Henry Ford Health System/Patient Engaged Research Center Program for Head and Neck Cancer.
I became a volunteer mentor for Imerman Angels, the one-on-one support community for cancer patients and caregivers in 2018. It was important to me to be able to find additional ways to provide much-needed support to head and neck cancer patients and survivors, especially to those who have just concluded treatment and enduring the often debilitating side effects, which are both short- and long-term. I find it gratifying to share my journey with persons seeking help from us at Imerman Angels so that I can provide encouragement to them. During these present times of isolation due to Covid-19, it is very difficult to find and navigate ways to get to your “new normal,” and as I listen to our clients, I know and understand the stress of working through the side effects and treatment complications, the slow improvements that don’t happen quickly enough, the great fatigue, and the anxiety associated with awaiting a scan result. Knowing there is an organization specifically dedicated to reaching out to survivors with care and compassion can be comforting.
I just learned about the partnership between the Head & Neck Cancer Alliance and Imerman Angels from a series of HNCA webinars I recently attended and was absolutely elated. The wealth of resources, programs, information, and survivor stories that HNCA has available is tremendous, so as a mentor with IA, this new team effort is going to be highly beneficial to our head and neck cancer community. It is exciting to be a part of this endeavor!