Todd’s Story: Painful mouth sore leads to cancer diagnosis

9:09 PM, Feb 09, 2021

When Todd Stokes, 55 of Warren, MI noticed a small canker sore in his mouth, he never expected the news that would soon follow.

While eating pizza in October of 2019, the canker sore in his mouth that had been there for a week was causing so much pain he could barely eat. He decided to go to the store to get some topical over-the-counter medication. Two days passed and the treatment wasn’t helping, so he called his primary care physician. His doctor prescribed a round of antibiotics and quickly referred him to an oral surgeon to take an even closer look and biopsy the canker sore.

Within two days he was called back to the oral surgeon’s office and was given the diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma of the floor of the mouth, which is a cancer arising in the lining of the mouth. He was in shock, especially after everything he had been through in his life up until that point.

“I began to cry, the tears were for my mother,” Todd said. “I didn’t know how I was going to tell my family this news, I had finally rebuilt my life and was thriving.”

A Challenging Past

Todd was a recovering alcoholic and former smoker. He had been sober for 14 years prior to his diagnosis and had experienced other health emergencies over the years. He suffered from esophageal varices in 2004 and again in 2006, both times he went into a coma-like state and almost didn’t survive.

His sobriety began in 2006 when he decided to seek help through a 12-step recovery program following his second health emergency. The strong fellowship formed through that program and support from his family played a big role in his life getting back on track.

“I had rebuilt my life from being almost homeless with no job, to becoming sober and dedicating my life to helping others through recovery fellowship, and now I had to tell my family I have cancer,” said Todd.

“Even though my heart hurt for my family and what they were about to go through with me, the years spent in the recovery program had taught me to take things one day at a time,” said Todd. “I knew this would help my cancer journey. I couldn’t change the fact that I had cancer, but I could accept it and move forward with a positive approach.”

Next Steps Lead to Fast Action
After receiving the cancer diagnosis, the oral surgeon sent him directly to Henry Ford to meet with Tamer Ghanem, M.D., Ph.D., Head & Neck Cancer and Microvascular Surgery Director, Department of Otolaryngology, to prepare for next steps. His case was presented to the Head and Neck Tumor Board and his best option for a cure involved surgery with the possibility of additional radiation and/or chemotherapy afterwards.

Reconstructive Surgery

“Todd’s cancer was unique because he was a fairly young patient who was very active and full of life,” said Dr. Ghanem. “It is a very serious, life threatening diagnosis with a tough recovery.”

A stage 3 squamous cell carcinoma in the floor of mouth, like Todd’s tumor, is a serious cancer diagnosis with a 60 to 70 percent survival rate at 5 years. The surgery needed to remove Todd’s cancer also included extensive reconstruction of the floor of mouth and tongue because removing it would affect his speech and his ability to eat.

“Our goal was to not only beat the cancer, but to give him the best shot at a functional quality of life following the surgery,” said Dr. Ghanem.

“They didn’t waste any time,” said Todd. “The team was so caring and sincere, they explained everything about what the surgery would entail and what my options were. I never felt afraid and I knew I was in the best hands.”

Preparing for Surgery
Todd’s surgery was scheduled for Nov. 12 at Henry Ford Detroit. Prior to going into surgery, the Henry Ford team gathered his family to explain what to expect along with follow up care.

“Everyone from every area of the hospital came in and shared what their role would be during the procedure with all my loved ones,” said Todd. “That made a lasting impression, I never felt like a patient, I felt like family and I instantly knew everything was going to be alright.”

The surgery went better than expected. Vivian Wu, M.D., his cancer surgeon, and Dr. Ghanem his reconstructive surgeon, were able to remove all the cancer and reconstruct the floor of his mouth and tongue with vascularized tissue from his forearm skin, eliminating the need to remove his jaw. Todd went through 6 weeks of radiation therapy after the procedure and some speech therapy to help with recovery. He is currently doing well and has limited speech impairment.

“I owe my life to Dr. Ghanem, Dr. Wu, everyone I encountered at Henry Ford was truly exceptional. It wasn’t just one person they all stood out,” said Todd. “It was a true team approach.”

A New Outlook On Life

Todd is living life to the fullest these days and enjoys spending time with his family. He still struggles with some difficulties from the surgery, including sore teeth and the loss of feeling in half of his tongue, but he continues to share the positive impact this diagnosis had on his life and spreads the spirit of hope and faith to everyone he meets.

“My outlook on everything has changed,” said Todd. “Things like cancer can cause you to think of only you, but you have to understand that you can be the light and give hope to others through the process.

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