In 2001, during a routine dental checkup, Sarah Gardner’s dentist saw an unusual spot on her tongue.
Her dentist referred her to an oral surgeon who biopsied the area. The tissue showed dysplastic oral leukoplakia, a patch of white skin on a moist area such as the mouth that can be precancerous. It was determined that Sarah didn’t have oral cancer, but to be safe, her oral surgeon removed the abnormal tissue from her tongue. In 2008 and again in 2016, the abnormal tissue came back in the same spot; both times, the tissue was removed.
In April 2018, a new sore appeared on her tongue but in a different location than the previous spots — and this one was painful. “I’ve had canker sores in the past, so I thought it was just a normal sore,” Sarah says. “I did my usual care routine — rinsed with hydrogen peroxide and brushed my teeth several times a day — but nothing seemed to help it heal.”
It kept getting bigger. After three weeks, the lesion went from the size of a tiny dot to the size of a dime. Sarah was scared and in extreme pain, so she contacted her oral surgeon, who referred her to Dr. Benjamin Saltman, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital and Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.
Dr. Saltman ordered a biopsy of the lesion, but knew what he was looking at immediately: oral squamous cell carcinoma, a type of cancer, on the left side of her tongue. Oral squamous cell carcinoma can occur not only on the tongue, but also any part of the gums, floor of the mouth, palate and lips. Diagnoses aren’t very common in the U.S., but are quite common in other countries such as India.
“Dr. Saltman informed me that I had stage 2 cancer,” says Sarah. “He laid out my entire plan of care, from surgery to recovery, which made me feel like I was in great hands.”
During surgery, Dr. Saltman had to remove one-third of Sarah’s tongue, along with lymph nodes that were tested to determine if the cancer had spread. Luckily, it hadn’t. “Since I had an early stage of the cancer, there was a good chance they could treat the disease,” she says.
The next part of Sarah’s journey included reconstruction of her tongue with a tongue flap. Her surgical team used skin and fascia — a band of connective tissue beneath the skin that stabilizes muscles and other internal organs — taken from her arm along with their blood supply. That was then connected to an artery and vein in her neck.
“They took a small section of tissue and part of a major artery for blood supply from my left forearm to rebuild my tongue,” Sarah says.
She credits the complementary reiki therapy she received in the hospital with helping her to heal. Reiki is a Japanese energy therapy that promotes a multisystem relaxation response involving the body, mind and spirit.
“Reiki was an amazing part of my recovery in the hospital,” Sarah says. “It helped me center my thoughts and focus on restoring my emotional and physical well-being.”
Sarah says each person who took care of her at Sharp Memorial was amazing. “Everyone who treated me or gave me therapy during my time at Sharp made me feel like I was their sole focus,” she says. “My care team let nothing slip through the cracks.”
After hospitalization, Sarah had skin graft surgery to replace the skin taken from her left forearm with skin from her thigh.
“Part of the nerves in my forearm were removed during the surgery, so I had to go to physical therapy for six months to learn how to use my left hand again,” she says. “I also needed speech therapy for three months to learn how to chew and swallow again.”
Sarah says her eating habits have changed a little, but life is almost back to normal.
“I didn’t eat many sweets before, but now that some of my taste buds are dulled, I enjoy sweets and more flavorful foods,” she says. “I’ve become open to trying new dishes that I wouldn’t have eaten before surgery.”
She is also spending more time with her two children and husband, exercising, cooking and pursuing her passion for arts and crafts.
“My life is richer since this happened to me. I’m incredibly grateful just to be alive,” says Sarah. “I now focus on the positive aspects of life and spend less energy on anything that's negative.”
For the news media: To talk with Sarah Gardner or Dr. Saltman for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.