For Dana, the Third Time is the Charm
When Dana McIlhenny looks around, what she thinks is that things could be worse. As you read her story, you might be amazed to learn she feels that way. But to Dana, attitude and knowledge are everything. When she reached the latest detour in a long cancer journey, she took control, researched everything, kept her options open and her attitude positive.
Her journey started with a diagnosis of cervical cancer at age 24. Fourteen years after beating that, she had a white spot on her tongue that really hurt when she took a bite of a potato chip! Somehow, Dana says, “I immediately knew it was cancer.” She had surgery to remove that tumor from her tongue, but cancer cells popped up and had to be treated intermittently over the next five years.
In April 2018, she felt a hard bump on her tongue and once again, eating was painful. A biopsy led to another surgery and the discovery that things were worse than expected. She felt something was wrong with her gum too. Always someone to research her options, Dana went for a second opinion. The diagnosis? Stage IV jaw cancer.
Doctors at the University of North Carolina suggested she get chemotherapy to shrink the tumor prior to surgery. Dana’s chemo story is like many others: she lost her hair, her face broke out, and she felt nauseated a lot. But during this time, she got mad at the cancer and vowed that it wasn’t going to win!
In October of 2018, in a 10 ½ hour surgery, she had four teeth removed along with half of her lower jaw. To help her look and function normally, surgeons rebuilt her jaw with a titanium implant and part of one of her own leg bones. They also made a graft from skin on her leg to reconstruct the part of her tongue that was removed. The good news here? That the chemotherapy she endured had shrunk the tumor enough so that they didn’t need to remove most of her tongue!
Though Dana stayed with her parents in Chapel Hill for some of her treatment, she came home to Greensboro and Cone Health for the rest, and she’s glad she did. From the nurse navigator for the Head & Neck Cancer Program, to the dietitian, speech pathologist, nurse, and financial advisor at Cone Health Cancer Center, she got a lot of help. And of the radiation technologists who treated her, Dana says, “I love those girls. For them to have the good attitude they have and treat me like a friend—that helped!” She’s happy that her Cone Health Cancer Center team worked with her team at UNC too.
Dana also needed Cancer Rehab. She was referred initially for swelling in her neck and face, something that is common after the kind of cancer treatment she received. Dana’s goal was to see her dimples again! She definitely got help with that, but what she didn’t expect was for her therapists, Teresa Brown and Valerie Rosenberger, to identify other things that they could help with. Those ranged from swelling in the leg (where she’d had the grafts taken to rebuild her jaw and tongue), to the difficulty she was having lifting her right arm, the limp when she walked, and her poor stamina. There was the left arm pain too! Cancer Rehab helped her with all these problems.
When you meet Dana now, you’d be hard pressed to tell what she’s been through. She talks about this, saying, “I know people look at me and think I don’t look sick, but it’s been a journey.” In fact, it’s been three journeys for Dana, and she’s hopeful that the third time’s a charm.