By Judi Hetzroni
I used to love August. I love summer, and my birthday is on August 24 (this year I’ll turn 36!). But now I have mixed feelings about this month.
On August 5, 2013, I had major surgery to remove a large tumor from my tongue, and it changed everything in my life. I remember feeling shocked and confused. How could this be happening to me? I'm young, healthy; I’ve never even smoked! I was going to be turning 30 in just a few weeks. My life seemed so perfect; everything was just right.
In a way, August 5 is like another birthday—but not the kind where you wake up all happy and excited. It’s the day my doctors removed a monster from my body and practically saved my life. But that was just the beginning.
I spent two weeks in the hospital with my amazing husband, Oren. I required constant help and supervision while the grandparents took care of our kids (after all, there’s no daycare in August). Our son Gilad was 4.5, and for the most part he continued being his super sweet and easygoing self during this time. Our daughter Gaja was only 1.5, and had a more difficult time since cancer forced me to stop breastfeeding her.
Those two weeks I spent in the hospital were scary. I experienced some complications and lots of pain and frustration. I couldn’t talk. I had stitches in my mouth and neck. I had a breathing tube in my throat and a feeding tube down my nose, as well as a cast on my arm (the doctors used skin, muscle, and blood vessels from my arm to create an implant to replace the half a tongue they removed). I used a whiteboard to communicate and a clicker to “call out” since my finger-snapping abilities are horrible.
After that period, I continued my recovery at home, still forbidden by my doctors to talk for a few more weeks! It wasn’t easy, not being able to talk to my kids and care for them on my own as I did before. A month and a half after the surgery my doctors had me speak a little bit, no more than a few words here and there, slowly and carefully. I also started getting back to eating, beginning first with very soft foods and gradually managing soft solids. My doctors wanted me to eat as much as I could to prepare my body for chemo and radiation…
SEVEN WEEKS OF HELL
My treatments started in October 2013. I had 33 radiations, Sunday through Thursday. On top of that, six chemos, once every Wednesday. Those were seven weeks of hell!
But let’s get back to my birthday that happened a couple months prior. Before my surgery, Oren had already bought my birthday present (this was before I even knew I had cancer.) I love to bake—especially cupcakes. I’m kind of known as The Cupcake Queen around here! My second-hand mixer had been failing, and so, for my 30th birthday, Oren gifted me one of the best presents of my life: a beautiful KitchenAid mixer (hot pink, of course). This birthday present saved my life.
It took about a week after my treatments for the side effects to kick in, and I couldn’t believe it could get any worse. But it did. I wasn’t able to speak because of all the burns and sores in my mouth and throat, and I definitely couldn’t eat anything. I could barely handle water; it felt like swallowing broken glass.
For the next few months, my diet consisted of fluid IVs and protein shakes. I had a terrible metallic taste in my mouth all the time, as if the pain wasn’t enough. I became very depressed, going to the hospital every day, then back home to my room. We set up the office as my bedroom so I could have my own space. I was having a hard time, I needed so much sleep, and let’s face it—I was going through chemo and kids bring home germs and other contagious surprises. I hated my life; I hated that I couldn’t be the Mommy I felt my kids deserved. I didn’t even feel like me sometimes!
I STARTED BAKING
I needed something to help me get out of bed, to keep me occupied, and to get my brain working a little bit. So, I went into the kitchen even though there is nothing in there for me, and I started baking.
I knew I couldn’t eat anything, but it still felt so good to do something. I baked something new almost every day, and when Oren came home with the kids, the house smelled amazing! And they got to end their day with something yummy and sweet Mommy baked especially for them!
It gave me so much joy and satisfaction to be able to do something special for them. The kids usually preferred anything with chocolate, obviously. But for Oren and all the many friends and family that were always available to help, I baked EVERYTHING! Cinnamon rolls are a big hit in my house, as well as pecan pie, apple pie, key lime pie, peach pie, strawberry pie, blueberry pie (I love pie!), lemon squares, pastries, pretzels, all kinds of cookies, brownies, muffins, babkas, birthday cakes, a variety of cheesecakes… and, of course, tons of different types of cupcakes! We had lots of visitors checking on me and helping with the kids. It felt good to have a way to show them all how much I appreciated it. I was in so much pain and I was so scared, but baking helped me—it gave me a reason to get out of bed and move around.
It took a while for me to start talking and eating again. By June 2014 I was eating soft solids and speaking somewhat clearly albeit with difficulty. Recovery was a slow and gradual process. I was patient but also frustrated. I was happy when I could start eating the things I baked, but it was bittersweet (no pun intended) since my taste buds are never going to fully recover. I used to make Crème Brule every year for my birthday, but now I can’t really taste it. I still love to make it on my birthday, though, so everyone else can enjoy it!
TODAY I CAN...
Today, almost six years later, I can talk, drink and eat. I am happy and cancer-free. I have been in therapy for the last few years and I am still learning how to accept myself and what I have been through. My taste buds don’t work, I have nerve damage in my mouth, and I choke occasionally when I eat. But I am alive, I can talk to my kids, I can even sing again! I have a wonderful family and amazing friends who are there for me always, no matter what.
I fought hard and survived stage 2 tongue cancer. I wish it never happened, but it did, and there is no point wishing for the impossible.
Instead, I’ll make a birthday wish: To always enjoy life and make the most of any situation. My kids have a strong, brave, wonder woman warrior Mama, and I would do anything for them.
On August 5, the six-year anniversary of my surgery, I’ll take the day to reflect and appreciate everything I have. And on the 24th, I’ll celebrate my birthday as well as another year of surviving and thriving!