Wife, Morgan Stanley,
and Survivor of Stage III Oral Cancer;
The year 2015 started out on a high note for Cindy Stemple. She was in the middle of pursuing her MBA, making strides in furthering her career with Morgan Stanley, happily married to her husband, Michael, for almost two years, traveling the world, and generally loving her life. Until that is, a Stage III oral cancer diagnosis barreled into her life that May. Only 27 years old, with no previous risk factors for the disease, Cindy learned she would need to have a portion of her tongue removed along with a multitude of lymph nodes and would additionally need 33 sessions of radiation treatment to have the best chance in overcoming the disease.
Her treatment and subsequent recovery that year were fraught with complications from a postoperative infection and acute kidney failure to an awake intubation after scarring to her airway created complications in placing her feeding tube. However, the most devastating outcome for Cindy was losing the ability to talk and sing while she recovered. Prior to her oral cancer diagnosis, Cindy had received her BA in Music from Valparaiso University in 2010, and her primary instrument was voice. Although graduating in the middle of a recession steered her career in a different direction, Cindy was still actively involved with music in the community, including as a performer with several local choruses.
Luckily with the help of countless doctors, nurses, physical therapists, speech therapists and other specialists, Cindy would eventually regain the ability to talk, eat, and even sing throughout the end of 2015 and into early 2016. She was able to complete her MBA at the end of 2016, return to her job and receive two promotions over the next two years, and was thrilled to rejoin the local choruses with whom she had enjoyed performing prior to her diagnosis.
Cindy thought she would be able to generally put the experience behind her until the ulcers from radiation treatment stopped healing and subsequently deteriorated further until she sought a second opinion at the end of 2017. Cindy’s new surgeon felt despite clear biopsies, she was at risk for a recurrence and another operation would be the smartest approach.
Her surgeon suggested Cindy undergo another glossectomy and radical neck dissection, but this time her tongue would be reconstructed using tissue from her forearm and a skin graft would be required. In the weeks leading up to the January 2018 surgery, an MRI revealed what had originally appeared to be a surface-level lesion was actually a new mass developing on her tongue. When the surgery was ultimately completed, the pathology revealed it was indeed a recurrence of squamous cell carcinoma. Cindy’s surgery also ended up being more extensive than her medical team initially thought as they also needed to reconstruct the floor of her mouth and gums on the side of her jaw where the tumor had been found.
In the months following the surgery, Cindy’s recovery was just as difficult and intense as it had been following her original diagnosis, but she was determined to work with her speech and physical therapists to regain the abilities to talk and eat once again and retain the same quality of life she had managed after her original diagnosis. Less than one year from the date of Cindy’s reconstructive surgery, she performed as a soloist for Handel’s Messiah for two local choruses at Christmastime in 2018.
In the years following her surgery, Cindy has been asked to share her cancer journey in a variety of forums because a singer who lost her tongue tends to be inspiring and motivating to so many. Cindy and her husband are volunteers for a local organization called Pelotonia, which raises funds to support cancer research. In February 2020, Cindy was asked by the organization to participate in an interview for World Cancer Day on WBNS 10TV which is the local CBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, and later that year she was featured in its virtual fundraising event ‘Legends Live’ where she shared her story.
She has also been a participant in several of Eric Whitacre’s virtual choirs, and in 2020 Cindy was asked by his team to contribute a written submission for a commemorative album of all of his virtual choirs to date. She also contributed to the book Better Together: Navigating the Cancer Experience by Jessica Walker. Cindy also serves as a non-scientist member on the OSUCCC-James Institutional Review Board for research studies.
Sharing her experience has been incredibly important to Cindy, particularly as an Adolescent and Young Adult Survivor because of much of the information and stories shared within the head and neck cancer community. in particular, are largely from older survivors, who are at a very different stage in life. If she can help someone else, particularly someone younger, navigate the seen and unforeseen challenges of a head and neck cancer diagnosis, it gives her experience navigating the disease a purpose. Although she firmly believes there doesn’t need to be a “reason” for the hardships people experience in life.
Cindy has been in remission since 2018, and while she is thrilled that head and neck cancer is no longer the main focus of her day-to-day life, she is learning that her survivorship experience is far from over. She continues to face a variety of physical and emotional side effects from her surgeries and radiation treatment and navigates the challenges of ‘putting my life on hold’ in her relationships with virtually everyone around her. She and Michael have watched friends move forward in life and buy homes and start growing their families while they were spending most of their time in hospitals or at home while Cindy recovers. Knowing that it is appropriate and normal to experience these emotions, in addition to learning to navigate the ups and downs of her experience and the aftermath will, in all likelihood, she realizes will be a life-long journey.
Cindy is driven to continue to share what she has learned and experienced along the way if it helps someone else navigate their own experience with cancer.
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