How Losing My Tongue to Cancer Helped Me Find My Voice

Meet the Toronto stylist who found the confidence to pursue her career dreams after surviving cancer, twice.

I was bullied in elementary school.

My family and I moved from a town north of London, England to the Greater Toronto Area when I was 10. On my first day of school in Canada, I arrived wearing brand new sneakers my parents had bought from Walmart. Damn, did I feel good. But the cool, sporty girls, with their worn-in kicks, immediately eviscerated me for my fresh, white shoes. When I opened my mouth, my British accent only gave them more ammunition. The constant teasing became so incessant that I once pretended to be sick for six days in a row to avoid giving a speech in class. When I finally gave my presentation, I was laughed at.

Those memories are still painful.

My experiences created heavy insecurities about my accent. What I didn’t realize was how being judged for the way I spoke would prepare me for the changes that come with tongue cancer.

Before my diagnosis at 23, I felt like I had come into my own. I had good friends and a great boyfriend. I had completed university. I laughed loudly, smiled often and was ready to pursue a creative career. Then, I noticed a spot on my tongue that wouldn’t heal.

(Related: The Canadian Provinces with the Highest Rates of Cancer)

After a painful biopsy, my doctor confirmed I had tongue cancer. I was so shocked I just remember him saying, “Don’t go home and Google this.” He warned me that my cancer, oral squamous cell carcinoma, wasn’t common for my age and carries a very high recurrence rate. (To this day, I have not Googled my cancer.)

Four weeks later, I went through extensive treatment. First, surgery to remove the cancer and rebuild my tongue using skin from under my left arm, then six weeks of daily radiation. It wasn’t possible to replicate the function of my tongue, but the surgeons recreated its shape. Having the ability to press your tongue to the roof of your mouth is key for both speaking and eating—both very important to me. It was terrifying.

Thankfully, the treatment worked. Things were OK for a few years, albeit an adjustment. Then the worst happened—another spot.

(Related: I Was Diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer at Age 34)

The doctors had to carefully remove the remainder of my tongue. They took skin from my left forearm and rebuilt again, as best they could. Though they couldn’t guarantee I would ever speak or eat normally again, I’m British and full of loud opinions, so there was no stopping me. It’s a challenge, but I consider myself lucky that I can still enjoy a hamburger and, more importantly, a glass of wine.

Tongue cancer changed how I sound, but it also gave me the confidence to pursue fashion seriously. It made me realize I needed to do what I wanted to do, because there was no guarantee I’d get another chance. After radiation, my then-boyfriend, now-husband, and I moved to Calgary and I landed a job as a wardrobe stylist at a small boutique.

After a few years of working for other people, albeit in amazing boutiques, and with incredible brands, I was beginning to feel a little stuck. If I’m being honest, my cancer recurrence gave me that same renewed strength to shake things up, to reach higher.

I took time off after Cancer #2, to recover, have two children, and figure out my next steps. It became clear that the only thing stopping me from taking that final leap into entrepreneurship was a lack of confidence.

(Related: The Best Beauty and Wellness Treatments for People with Cancer or in Remission)

As uncomfortable as it was, I knew where to find and build my clientele: Instagram. That meant pushing aside fears of being photographed, speaking about my journey, speaking on the phone or taking up space. Towards the end of 2019, I began leveraging my social media, posting styling advice with my particular brand of tough love. I want to offer my clients something I was never given: the knowledge and the confidence to express their personality.

Clients started calling, and they haven’t stopped and early in 2021, I was able to officially launch my own styling business. The more my following grows, the more I feel responsibility to these women, and to my own children, to be more than a pretty face on social media. I share the hard things to remind people that you never know what is happening behind a square on your phone.

Although my disability is relatively invisible, I still see my scars and a smile that isn’t mine. Every phone call is a hurdle and every menu item a potential choking hazard. I often get spoken to loudly, as if I have hearing issues, or slowly, as if I’m incapable of understanding. It says a lot about how we respond to differences we don’t understand.

My next hurdle with cancer treatment is an exciting one. After much discussion, I decided to crown every one of my teeth. Not only will it protect them from the damage radiation made them susceptible to, but it will give me a fancy new smile. There are complications associated with surgery—intubation and invasive dental work are more dangerous for head and neck cancer survivors—but it’s the right decision for me. It means that as the world adjusts to a new, post-pandemic normal, so will I—moving forward into a new phase of recovery, with one less physical reminder of the uphill climb.

Every challenge I’ve had with my self-confidence led me here. Imperfect? Sure. But I am showing the f-ck up anyway—and you can, too.

Next, read “Confidence Is Currency:” How to Crush Your Fear and Find Your Inner Strength.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada