Kindergarten Teacher Finds Her Voice Again After Head and Neck Cancer

Date: Oct 12, 2021

“It gave me a sense of trust,” she says. “I knew that these people were going to take care of me.”

Ten years after the first of three negative biopsies she had done of the spot on her tongue, Jennifer finally got a correct diagnosis.

“I went back to my dentist,” says the kindergarten teacher, “and he was recommending a new ENT because, while we couldn’t see anything, there were no spots, he just didn’t have a good feeling about it. So he sent me to an ENT associated with Emory Johns Creek. I went to this doctor who was amazing and basically walked in the room and knew that it was bad.”

Finally an Accurate Diagnosis

The three oral pathologists who looked at the results of the new biopsy Jennifer had done by Emory “all confirmed that it was indeed tongue cancer,” she says. Her next step was a visit to Emory Midtown Hospital.

“I was able to get in within two days,” says Jennifer, “which is amazing. The period of time from diagnosis until you get in with the expert who’s going to lead you to the next step is the most stressful because you’re just kind of in limbo and you don’t know how bad it is. Your mind is wandering.”

Faced with the “packed” waiting room at Emory Midtown Hospital, Jennifer recalls thinking, “I’m going to be a number. I’m going to be in and out. I’m a mess, I need somebody’s time.”

She had a lot of questions, and her husband had a notebook to keep track of what they were told. “We wanted to really talk to somebody.”

Surprised by Compassion

A physician assistant (PA) looked in Jennifer’s mouth, “and then just very gently told me what was about to happen, the ordeal that this was going to be. I just broke down crying.” The PA sat down with Jennifer and held her hand.

“Just to see the compassion and the time she took with me,” begins Jennifer, trailing off as she remembered how touched she had been by the kindness. “She already was caring for me, like she’d known me forever.”

That PA was Kelly Summers, with Emory Otolaryngology Head and Neck Program. As Summers recalls it, “When I first met Jennifer, I could tell she had been given very little information, and understandably was nervous about her diagnosis and prognosis. There really is no formula on giving this kind of news to a patient, but I delivered the news as if she were one of my own family members—with compassion, empathy, and I was open and honest with her.”

And what a difference it made!

“From that moment forward,” says Summers, “Jennifer really exceeded all of our expectations during and after her treatment. When we were concerned about her speech or her swallowing, she was already back teaching her kindergarteners and eating pretty much anything she wanted.”

As a kindergarten teacher, Jennifer said she loves to teach science because she pictures her own doctors.

“They grafted from my arm and my leg and built me a new tongue, which is completely amazing,” she says. “When I’m teaching science, I’m always thinking of my physicians. These little people might be those doctors one day. It’s just wonderful.”

Besides their medical expertise, Jennifer was impressed by how willing her Winship physicians were to share their own humanity.

“It gave me a sense of trust,” she says. “I knew that these people were going to take care of me.”

Back to Fully Living Again

Today, Jennifer is one of Winship’s Patient Family Advocates, working with other survivors and the Emory team to bring a patient’s perspective in meetings and advisory groups. She runs and exercises every day, does bootcamp, yoga and Pilates. She works full-time, and is the mom of a teenager.

“I’m just living my best life and trying to help people as much as I can,” says Jennifer.

“Not only has Jennifer surpassed all expectations with her own care,” says Summers, “but she has also taken several of our patients under her wing who are on a similar path. She is not only inspiring for our staff members in the Head and Neck Program, but also continues to encourage and give hope to many of our patients every day. I really believe this is the groundwork our patients need and we so appreciate having Jennifer as a patient.”

Looking back on her experience at Winship, Jennifer overflows with gratitude.

“When you’re in the middle of it,” she says, “you’re just kind of going and going, and putting one foot in front of the other and moving step-by-step. But when it’s over, you look back and think, ‘Wow, I actually made it through that.’ I know that I would have never made it through that without my team at Emory. I just am so grateful that I landed at Emory.”

Certified family nurse practitioner Martha J. Ryan, MS, FNP-C, coordinates patient care with the physician team at the Emory Head and Neck Surgery Center. She first met Jennifer immediately after her cancer surgery, and told us she was impressed by Jennifer’s strength and resilience.

“She was obviously scared,” says Ryan, “but took each challenge and therapy head-on, wanting to learn more and push herself to work harder.”

Over the years, Ryan has watched as Jennifer completed her therapy and returned to work as a kindergarten teacher, which Ryan says “is amazing despite her functional changes from tongue cancer.” Ryan says that as a mom of two kids and one child who did virtual kindergarten last year, she saw firsthand the amount of work these teachers dedicate to their students—much like health care professionals do in caring for our patients.

She adds, “Jennifer is such a special person and her ability to conquer tongue cancer treatments and teach kindergartners during COVID is an amazing feat and why I recommended her story be spotlighted by our Winship team.”

Care that Puts You First

Facing a head or neck cancer diagnosis isn’t something you should do alone. At Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, your personalized care is led by compassionate and experienced head and neck cancer specialists. We’ll walk with you every step of the way — from the first phone call to our clinic to your last treatment and long after.

For patients who have recently been diagnosed with head and neck cancer, our head and neck clinic at Winship Cancer Institute offers a multidisciplinary approach to care that caters to each patient’s individual needs, as well as provides the best care options and treatment plans specific to each case. For more information or to request an appointment with our head and neck clinic, call 404-778-0278.

Hearing you have cancer is never easy, but we’ll be with you every step of the way, providing support, helping you fight and giving you hope. As with all treatments, individual patient results vary. It is important to discuss your cancer treatment options with your physician. Learn more about our approach and cancer care innovations.

About Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University is Georgia’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a prestigious distinction given to the top 3% of cancer centers nationwide for conducting cancer research and providing training that is transforming cancer care, prevention, detection and survivorship. Winship discovers, develops, delivers and teaches some of the world’s most effective ways to prevent, detect, diagnose and treat each patient’s unique cancer. Cancer care at Winship includes specialists with deep expertise and experience in cancer; multidisciplinary evaluation, treatment planning and care coordination that caters to each patient’s individual needs; therapies supported by the latest advances in cancer research; and comprehensive clinical trials and support services.

Schedule your appointment today.

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