Retiree Counts Her Blessings After Reconstructive Surgery
By Jill M. Ercolino
Stories bubble out of Karen Williams. The retired secretary talks about her family, her friends, and her job at Sesame Place, a theme park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, 20 miles north of Philadelphia, where Williams greets children, teens, and the young-at-heart.
Her candid chatter is endearing and self-deprecating. And that’s why it’s so hard to believe that eight years ago, this single mom, now 62, faced the prospect of never speaking again.
It all started when Williams, a casual smoker for 40 years, noticed a white, pimple- like bump on her tongue. “It was getting more and more uncomfortable and felt like it was inflating,” she recalls.
A biopsy confirmed that Williams had carcinoma of the tongue, a disease she trudged through with humor. “I always thought that if I got cancer,” she says, “I would get it in the mouth because I’m so sarcastic, and look what happened.”
Friends urged her to go to New York City for treatment, but Williams chose Fox Chase. “I didn’t like the idea of going to a large teaching hospital,” she says. “I wanted to go somewhere that specialized in cancer. Fox Chase was my kind of place.”
Treatment would require the removal of part of her tongue. When she met John A. Ridge, the head-and-neck surgeon who would perform the procedure, and Neal Topham, the reconstructive surgeon who would rebuild her tongue using tissue and blood vessels from her left wrist, she knew she had made the right decision. Known as experts in their fields, the pair inspired confidence.
“With them,” Williams says, “I just knew everything was going to be OK…that I would be OK.”
Her 12-hour surgery was followed by weeks of recovery—some of it spent attached to a feeding tube—as well as radiation treatments and speech therapy. Williams appreciated the help of Fox Chase social workers with navigating her questions and fears. Equally meaningful were small gestures of kindness from her doctors.
“Dr. Topham would come in every day and change the dressings on my wrist,” she says, recalling the Saturday afternoon he stayed a bit longer to cheer on her favorite college football team, Notre Dame, on TV.
Today, Williams (no longer a smoker) sometimes counsels others with tongue cancer and continues to count her blessings— even if she can’t eat spaghetti. “I can’t curl my tongue because it used to be my arm,” she explains with a laugh.
But she’s willing to make that sacrifice. “To be where I am today, it’s a miracle— it’s my miracle, and I’m very grateful.”