At 22 years young, I lost more than half of my tongue because of a cancerous tumor. My team of world-renowned surgeons put me back together better than Humpty Dumpty and now I am giving back! My name is Alyssa Fischer-Reeder, founder of The HNC Fund. The HNC Fund helps facilitate comprehensive financial support for the well-being of one Head and Neck Cancer patient each year. We believe in creating high-impact funding. Our goal is to raise at least $100,000 dollars annually for every HNC Fund Patient of the Year and as we grow, hope to help many more patients a year in the future.
In 2002, I graduated from American University, in Washington, DC with a BA in Education and Communication. That summer, I began to experience a sore on the backside of my tongue and thought I had bitten it while eating and thus thought nothing of it at the time. I was working, dating, and was enrolled to begin a Master’s Program in Communications in the fall. However, the sore on my tongue did not heal and became increasingly more tender. My dentist told me to make an appointment with an ENT and in the interim prescribed an antibiotic in the event I was experiencing a severe infection.
My Master’s Program began and while juggling work, classes, and an internship I began feeling awful. I had flu-like symptoms, migraines, sore throat, ear aches, lost weight without trying and the mass in my tongue turned white and bled all the time. I began researching my symptoms and came across oral, head, neck cancers. I was 22 years old, vegetarian, nonsmoker, seldom drank alcohol, and lived a highly active lifestyle. After meeting with the ENT, I had a biopsy, and the results came back indicating the growth was an aggressive Stage IV malignant tumor. My university health insurance reached its max coverage for the biopsy.
Next, I met my team of doctors and knew instantly they were going to save my life. One month after my biopsy, my 14 1/2-hour surgery resulted in the removal of one-half of my tongue containing the tumor, cancerous lymph nodes in my neck and the soft palate on the roof of my mouth. My reconstructive surgeon performed a free tissue transfer to reconstruct my tongue and upper palate by removing a section of tissue from my forearm, and then reconnected veins in my new tongue to ensure it would flourish and heal. My dental surgeon created a palatal augmentation prosthesis that lowered my upper palate. After being discharged from the hospital I began concurrent radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
It was a grueling course of therapy. What should have been seven intense weeks of treatments turned into six tumultuous months. I suffered countless complications and numerous setbacks and was rushed to the ER and hospitalized a multitude of times. In order to receive nutrition, I had another surgery to insert a stomach feeding tube for the duration of the post-surgical treatments since I was unable to take anything by mouth. Without insurance, my medical bills were astronomically high. I wrote letters to organizations requesting financial assistance. I was denied coverage by 14 insurance companies due to having a preexisting condition.
Throughout my battle with cancer, the power of hope is what kept me afloat emotionally and mentally. My team of doctors, my family and friends helped me survive and thrive. I taught myself how to swallow, eat, talk, and laugh again. Without hope I am not sure what I would have done.
Following my recovery from HNC treatment, I returned to the classroom to obtain my Master’s Degree in Communications, wrote my thesis on “The Power of Hope” and graduated with honors in 2006. After graduation, I worked for health-related nonprofits and taught Pre-K. In 2019, I founded the HNC Fund.
Then in August 2020, at age 39, my jawbone fractured. At the time, I thought it was another jawbone infection. Following an x-ray, I was advised that I had a severe pathological jawbone fracture and my new team of surgeons clearly detailed another extremely complicated procedure would be necessary. After contacting my medical insurance company and explaining my situation I received a letter “deeming the procedure not medically necessary” which required a personal call from my surgeon to more fully explain the circumstances. The insurance company subsequently wrote me another letter indicating what it would and would not cover.
About a month later, I returned to the OR and during the ensuing 12 ½ -hour surgery had 95 percent of my fractured lower jawbone removed, removal of the fibula bone, veins and tissue from one leg for use in the replacement of my jawbone. While still in the hospital recovering, I returned to the OR for stomach tube insertion surgery and after three weeks was released from the hospital to return home to my family. Upon returning home, I had to learn how to walk again, speak again, swallow liquids and have remained on a predominately liquid and limited soft food diet for 7 months. In a few weeks, I will return to the OR for the last two stepped procedures for dental implants. I am grateful for my exceptional medical care, as well as the support of my family and friends.
In 2021, I became an Head Neck Cancer AllianceAmbassador dedicated to educating the community-at-large about HNC and was requested to join the Advisory Board for Courage Unmasked 9114HNC Fund. We now have our Third HNC Fund Patient of the Year and am excited for what the future holds both personally and professionally. I am fully aware of how fortunate I am. I savor every moment of every day and constantly reflect on the fact that I am one of the lucky ones as I have lost both family members and treasured friends to this dreadful disease.
My message to anyone going through a similar physically painful and emotionally stressful time while confronted by cancer is to never give up. Never allow yourself to lose hope as I am absolutely convinced that your mental outlook directly impacts your physical well-being. If you need assistance or want to learn more about our organization, please go to HNCFUND.org.
By Alyssa Fischer-Reeder