Elizabeth Brown Lax, who goes by Elly, got regular checkups having suffered from lichen planus for nearly 20 years – a condition that affects various areas of the body including the mouth, and presents as white patches, swelling, and painful sores. But she had no idea what would follow.
"My oral surgeon was checking my tongue as usual and felt a lump," Elly, from Nevada, US, told NeedToKnow.co.uk."He actually said, ‘I don’t like the look of that'."
'I couldn’t eat, sleep or concentrate'
"No one can fully prepare you for being told you have cancer," said the 45-year-old. "For about a week, I couldn’t eat, sleep or concentrate.
"I remember going to my regular hairdresser appointment and just being on the edge of tears, scared that all my hair was going to fall out anyway [even though I’d not had chemotherapy yet]."
The diagnosis was given in 2017, with Elly just 39 years old at the time, working as a model, singer, and on-camera host, "literally living my dream". Finding out she had cancer was horrifying but the nightmare was far from over — she was then told she would need to have a large chunk of her tongue removed.
A minor procedure allowed the small lump to be removed, but a year later the cancer returned.
"I started having ear pain so I went to the doctor, they scanned me and said I was fine. However, the pain soon became unbearable," she said.
"I went back and demanded to be re-scanned and re-biopsied, and that’s when it turned out that the cancer had returned, and it was stage 3."
Elly needed a hemiglossectomy which would see half her tongue removed. She also required a mandibulectomy, which would replace her jaw bone with bone from her leg.
"I also needed a tracheostomy so I could breathe in the hospital and a feeding tube for five months. And I’d have a big scar running from my lip, down my chin, and around my jaw," she said. "I remember taking the news very steadily but my doctors were incredible".
Doctors also planned to use tissue from Elly’s leg to rebuild her tongue and jaw flap, and she would need to use a wheelchair while re-learning to walk. Additionally, she would need to undergo physiotherapy to relearn how to chew, swallow, walk, and speak.
"After removing the tumour, they got the tissue they needed from my leg and reconstructed my face," she said. "I was in the hospital recovering for about nine days, with drains all over my body that came out over time."
Woman 'shocked' after looking in the mirror
Elly couldn't bring herself to look in the mirror, but when she finally did, she was shocked.
"No one wants to look in the mirror and see so much physical trauma, but I knew how fortunate I was to be alive," she said.
"I remember being impressed by all they had done to save my life. The left side of my face was as big as a volleyball," she recalled. "The stitches were fresh and deep."
Months of recovery followed, alongside chemotherapy and radiation treatment. which Elly described as "awful". In 2020, Elly also had surgery to treat the scar on her face and now has scans each year to ensure she remains cancer-free.
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