After developing a sore spot in her mouth in August 2016, Sinead Keane, 27 at the time, took to Google and searched her symptom. Cancer came up, but she shrugged it off.
When the sore spot not only didn’t go away but worsened after about six months, she had it biopsied and then learned she had stage 2 squamous cell carcinoma on the left side of her tongue.
Sinead made an appointment with Matthew C. Miller, M.D., an otolaryngologist who specializes in treating head and neck cancers. Twelve days after Sinead’s diagnosis, Miller removed the tumor along with about half of her tongue and 50 lymph nodes. Luckily, the lymph nodes did not appear cancerous. She stayed hospitalized at Wilmot Cancer Center for about two weeks and felt impressed by the care.
“The way that they treated my fiancé and my father, I don’t get that kind of respect at hotels,” she says. “Anyone who walked in my room from the janitor to the head doctor, everyone treated me with respect, treated my family with respect.”
Before her diagnosis, Sinead did a lot of power lifting and weight training, but surgery left her so weak she could hardly climb the stairs. However, the attitude she had as a weight lifter informed her approach to recovery and relearning basic functions, like talking.
“I would forget your tongue is a muscle,” she says. “That puts it in a perspective I can understand. You’ll never get stronger if you don’t train so it’s like, ‘OK, I’ll do my tongue exercises’.”
Her treatment also included 30 radiation treatments with Deepinder P. Singh, M.D. She finished in June 2017. For a while, she couldn’t taste food and it still felt difficult to speak, which was problematic because her job requires her to talk on the phone with people frequently. So Sinead worked with Catherine Cook, a speech pathologist at Wilmot Cancer Institute.
“The more I worked with Catherine and the more she pushed me and was like listen it’s just like everything else. It’s just like weight lifting. If you don’t use it, you lose it,” she says. “She gave me the tools to get back.”
Sinead has scans every six months and sees Singh or Miller every three months to check in. She also started up speech therapy again to try to continue to improve.
“I was kind of afraid that I would never feel normal again. That people wouldn’t understand me. That I wouldn’t be able to socialize but I have work to do and it hasn’t really been that long in the scope of things but I’m getting back to life,” she says.
That included continuing to grow her relationship with her boyfriend, Jay, who was by her side throughout treatment. At Christmas dinner in 2017, he proposed. She said yes and the couple is planning a wedding for October 2019.
No matter what the future holds, this experience has made her look at herself a little more confidently.
“If this thing taught me anything, it’s that I am capable of doing whatever I put my mind to,” she says.