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Healing From Head and Neck Cancer: It's in the Way You Move


Something in the way she moves ...

A peanut butter truffle. A piece of milk chocolate and peanut-y goodness wrapped in bright orange foil was my treat to myself after I finished any therapy visits I had to make after my surgery — and there were certainly plenty of them. As a head and neck cancer patient, I had to get my mouth and tongue back in working order after a very complex operation. And to make sure I could move around, the head and neck and shoulder muscles had to get in on the fun, too.

This wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. You don’t really think about how your neck swivels around when you’re looking over your shoulder as you back out of a parking spot in the supermarket parking lot or how far your tongue sticks out while you’re making faces at your cat. You do that too, right?

Once it’s gone, you have to get it back again. You stretch and swivel and move about. The next thing you know, you’re visiting the speech therapist a couple times a week, who’s measuring how far you can open your mouth. And then it’s off to see the physical therapist who wants to see if you can lift up both arms at the same time. It’s fun!

Well, no. It’s not fun and that’s how buying a little truffle after every visit became my pat-on-the-back to myself for a job well done. I was doing my exercises at home for my neck and arms and I was making real progress and only a few weeks after surgery. I was doing pretty well with the speech therapy too, even though I felt absolutely ridiculous as I pulled my tongue out of my mouth with my fingers every morning.

Every morning. Every morning, after my first cup of coffee, I pulled out the exercise sheets my speech and physical therapists gave me and every morning I rolled and shrugged my shoulders, rotated my neck up and down and to the left and the right, ten times each. I held an old yardstick in my hands as I moved my arms out and back and swiveled them around, hoping I didn’t knock my mug of coffee over.

What can I say? Sometimes I get a little enthusiastic.

Once a week, I drove up to Fox Chase Cancer Center in northeast Philly so I could be measured to see how much further I could move and stretch. It was just in little, teeny increments at first, but in time I was doing moving and grooving pretty well. It wasn’t always easy and not my idea of a good time, but once I started feeling better I got more motivated to “keep on keepin’ on,” as Curtis Mayfield once sang.

Amen to that. Somehow, somewhere along the line I got it stuck in my head that I was going to be just fine. When asked how I was doing, my answer became, “I’m well. I’m going to be just fine.”

It still is, because I’m still healing. Every day, I do my speech therapy exercises and physical therapy stretches and lymphedema massages.

And I never forget the chocolate.

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