Face and neck reconstruction post cancer

I know there is a growing number of "help me I am a cancer victim" scams out there so I am grateful that I could include one picture on this site to demonstrate that my injuries post cancer are very real. 

So allow me to give you as brief a summary as I am able.  I am 56 years old and some days I feel like I am 80.  I have been battling first cancer and later the effects of radiation to the head and neck for a little more than 15 yrs.  Thankfully, I survived cancer and am currently cancer free and while I am most grateful that following 10 hour surgical removal of a burst parotid gland tumor, many lymph nodes, facial nerves, 1/3 of my tongue and a path of cancer cells working their way to through the skull bone via my mastoid/ear canal ... I am not too thrilled that the effects of the radiation (also prescribed to eliminate any cancer cells that may have been missed) to the head and neck are a life sentence of extreme difficulties for the cancer survivor

Originally I was misdiagnosed as having Bells Palsy but in fact I was battling a slow growing and spreading cancer with cells that bore a resemblance to breast cancer cells.  I have been a HS English/history teacher for 30 years and following my original surgery, I am proud to say I fought very hard with the help of excellent doctors/surgeons to return to my classroom.  I have loved every single day I have spent with teens and I believe I have always been blessed with a youthful energy and enthusiasm that allowed students to view my classroom as an inviting, safe and positive place.  My kids and their folks have always been an extension of MY family so returning to them (albeit a bit goofy looking) was a gift that I am pretty certain helped me to become even closer to them as well as more insightful about their educational needs and desires.  Teaching returned my energy, revved up my personal creativity and motivation to do the best I could for kids and most of all it stabilized my self image in spite of my facial/neck scarring.  My career life was better than great until the effects of radiation caught up with me.

In early June of 2010 problems with painful swelling and a host of other issues brought me back to the surgical table for a complicated 14 hr surgery to create a new lower jaw bone from bone in my lower right leg as the after effects of heavy radiation ultimately killed the blood flow in the jaw.  Sadly a common "oops" of this delicate and lengthy surgery is the severing of the nerve(s) that operate the tongue.  So without going into that dark place that is hard to escape ... let me tell you that recovery was very slow because this time (post hospital) I would endure visiting nurses with rounds of IV antibiotics, a booted leg that needed healing with skin graft and open wound care, bloody scarring that made my leg look like I had been mauled by vicious dogs, a tracheotomy hole and severe damage to my neck, the loss of teeth on the left side to install the new jawbone which could not carry teeth so the facial symmetry was even more off than before and a loneliness and depression the likes of which I had not experienced the first time.

Once the trache hole had closed and my mobility had returned, I fought with the doctors to return to work by the start of the new school year and they gave in, clearing me to return.  I  felt as lucky as I did the first time because I had diverse and energetic students relieved that I was returning to start the new school year and I was further gifted with a brand new creative writing elective to launch for our building.  With the approach of the holiday season things were changing for the worst even though I had put in nearly 6 months of recovery.  The clarity of my speech was declining rapidly.  I was experiencing difficulty with returning mouth and ear infections, choking, burning tongue and lips and the worst of it ... I was losing my dramatic touch as my ability to pronounce words without slurring, also rolling my r's and l's into w's was rapidly slipping away.  For a time I could make jokes about "sounding like the result of a naughty moment shared between Tweetie Bird and Elmer Fudd" but by Christmas I knew deep down that joke was no longer funny. 

The nerves in my tongue were completely severed and it was too late for a repair to be effective.  My one stability - teaching - was now taken from me.  And here I am ... more than 2 years later still struggling with a laundry list of health issues - both physical and emotional.

So here is my motivation for asking for monetary help.  Part of my Warrior/Survivor instinct has always been linked to causes.  This was true of my persona all the way back to my teens.  I have fought the "good fight" for years.  My students of recent years have lovingly referred to me as "the old hippie that never grew up".  I prefer "activist" but truth is ... the kids were/are right.  The problem is ... I never thought I would have to fight for a personal cause.  But before I ask for your help I want to state that there is NO cancer (I am speaking about adults here ... children with cancer ... my issue is a walk in the park compared to that level of suffering) that is easier or less traumatic than any other.  All cancers are heinous thieves.  All adults that suffer a cancer diagnosis are traumatized in unspeakable ways and certainly for many the word "hope" is lost.  I do not believe that I am more deserving or that I have suffered more than anyone with any cancer diagnosis.

Having made those statements ... here is MY SELFISH question.  I have a pretty good and very well known health insurance provider.  I am aware that I am more fortunate than many Americans that cannot afford health insurance.  I have also paid some money into my health plan while my school district has paid some ... a benefit of my career.  What I fail to understand is this ... why is it that if I had fallen victim to breast cancer and lost one or both breasts; my health care provider would fully cover cosmetic reconstruction of my breast(s) BUT they will NOT cover cosmetic reconstruction of my neck and left dental/face to return some of the symmetry to my face?  My face cannot be covered by clothing ... the results of my cancer are always on display.  In the comfort of my school and classroom I could deal with my damages.  But I no longer have that safe place to hide.  I am a single, middle aged woman with many years to live and a destroyed self image.  Quite honestly, for me the fact that health insurance covers breast reconstruction but not facial reconstruction feels like a slap in my already wrecked face.  Are women's breast more valued than their face or their ability to speak and hear adequately?  When I speak I am fairly certain that to a complete stranger (at best) I look and sound like a stroke victim.  At worst (and consider the younger less worldly people out there in common service jobs ... hairdresser, wait staff, mechanics, etc) I certainly do not give off the aura of a woman with 2 MS degrees.  I am often spoken to by young adults as someone with severe intellectual challenges.  I just cannot move beyond this.  I can't even give birth to enough confidence to try online dating sites as they all recommend pictures which I will not post.  All my working life I had it in my head that in my retirement I would work part of the time as an educational consultant and spend some time divided between writing and traveling.  Truth be told ... as a single woman with this face and speech/hearing issues; I hardly leave my rented home to do more than groceries, doctor appointments and common errands.

I have been to specialty dental surgeons as well as cosmetic surgeons specializing in head/neck cancer reconstruction and have received estimates ranging from $20 to $35 thousand for any/all repairs.  I had to retire earlier than I would have liked so my pension is lower than I planned.  I am not complaining as it is certainly enough to live on ... but like a lot of women today, I had kids in college and no partner income to offset the cost of it all, so I do not have a savings to fall back on for this kind of expense.  My girls are grown and out living their lives and building their careers as they should be.  I am stuck and 56 is too young to have the TV on continually so you can fool yourself into feeling like you have company.  I do not have it in me to battle a multi million dollar mogul health care company that has turned me down again and again.  I have as significant a need - both emotionally and physically to be restored (as much as can be) to some semblance of normalcy as a woman that has lost her breast(s) to cancer but I cannot in any way afford to do so without help.  So my fund request is for the cancer/radiation results that I cannot hide behind clothing.  My speech will likely not improve much but my emotional health as well as my ability to chew and swallow without choking would improve my desire to step off my patio long enough to meet a neighbor or 2, order off a menu at a restaurant and maybe even do some tutoring or editing work at local schools/community colleges.

During my student teaching time in the late 70's, I lost a 17 yr old student to a fast moving and deadly cancer.  Three years later in an urban school district, I lost a 7th grade girl to a cancerous brain tumor.  Seeing kids and parents suffer with illness and loss becomes too common a list for educators.  For some ironic reason known only to Him, I have had a special place in my heart and made a few very, very small contributions when I could afford to do so to St. Jude Children's Hospital for many, many years.  So my plan is simply this ... if I am blessed with any assistance though this site, I will do whatever I can to pay your kindness forward to St. Jude Children's Hospital over the remainder of my lifetime.

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Theresa Luther 
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