Every day is a gift

Summer 2016

Kathy Poirier knew she had a battle ahead of her.

In March 2012, she was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma—a rare, incurable cancer with an average life expectancy of just five years. The Chatham, Ont. resident was told she would need to undergo a laryngectomy to remove her vocal chords, thyroid and part of her esophagus. As a result of the surgery, she would never be able to use her speaking voice again.

“When you receive news like that, all you want to do is be home with your family,” Kathy says of the day that Dr. Anthony Nichols explained her treatment options at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC). “I barely remember the appointment. My body went into autopilot.”

At the young age of 43, Kathy was just beginning to enjoy life as a grandmother.

“The experience was shocking for the entire family,” says her husband Claude.

Dr. Nichols successfully performed Kathy’s 10-hour surgery in April 2012, removing the cancer from her throat. The procedure involved removing a muscle and artery from Kathy’s forearm to rebuild her esophagus, and a skin graft from her leg to repair the skin on her forearm.

Kathy was eligible to have a prosthetic speaking device inserted at the bottom of her throat after the surgery site was healed. While her voice does not sound the same, the device allows her to communicate.

But Kathy and Claude knew this was just the beginning of her cancer journey. Patients with adenoid cystic carcinoma require frequent monitoring to track the progression of cancerous growths in different parts of the body.

“Cancer can grow back along nerve endings in the neck and face, or in the lungs and liver,” says Dr. Nichols. “When I first saw Kathy, we already knew she had slow-growing spots on her lungs and liver we would need to monitor.”

Coping with post-surgery challenges

Recovering from her surgery in hospital, Kathy became hyper- and hypo-calcemic due to the removal of her thyroid. This meant her body would alternate between absorbing too much or too little calcium.

“With the surgery, they had to cut through nerve endings, so I didn’t have a lot of pain in my throat,” says Kathy. “The calcium problem was much worse. My whole body would go into a muscle spasm, like when you have a charley horse in your calf.”

Kathy spent 15 days in hospital as her health-care team monitored her and ensured that her calcium levels were balanced. Kathy now takes four calcium pills and two vitamin D pills daily, and also sees an endocrinologist at LHSC every three months to ensure that her levels remain normal.

After her prosthetic speaking device was inserted, Kathy’s speech-language pathologist explained that some patients take months to get used to using it, and some are never able to. “I took to it right away,” says Kathy of the victory that has enabled her to speak to her loved ones.

Six weeks of radiation treatment was particularly difficult for Kathy.

“For the first week, I thought, ‘This isn’t so bad,’” she says. “In the weeks after, I completely lost the ability to taste food.”

Kathy can no longer produce saliva, a common side effect of radiation treatment. Her sense of taste came back six months after her treatment ended; however food now tastes completely different.

“I used to love carrots, but now they taste awful. If you want to know what it’s like for me, grab a handful of mud from your garden and put it in your mouth,” she says with a smile.

Kathy has regular checkups with Dr. Nichols to ensure treatment isn’t yet required on the small growths on her lungs and liver – a bridge she’ll cross when she needs to.

“Kathy has a lot of inner strength,” says Dr. Nichols. “I think it’s the reason why she’s adapted so well to these changes.”

Raising awareness

After recovering from radiation treatment, Kathy and Claude organized a fundraising walk for head and neck cancer that would directly help patients like her at LHSC.

“I wanted to thank Dr. Nichols for researching in this area, which has little awareness and funding,” she says. “Organizing the walk has also been very therapeutic for me. It’s about saying, ‘I’m still me, and I’m still a productive member of society.’”

Kathy also wanted to help reduce stigma surrounding the use of prosthetic speaking devices.

“I’ve been approached by people who say, ‘Don’t you wish you quit smoking before that happened to you?’ I’ve never been a smoker. But even for people who did smoke and require a device to communicate, no one deserves cancer,” says Kathy.

Living with cancer

Funding for clinical trials may help Kathy explore treatment options in the future.

“There are a lot of breakthroughs in cancer treatments, many of which are still in the early phases of clinical trials,” says Dr. Nichols. “They aren’t miracles for everyone, but for a small number of people, they are doing incredible things. My hope is that Kathy will be able to go through a clinical trial when the right study is available for her. The fact that her cancer is slow-growing is giving us time to explore those options.”

Kathy and Claude were already a team before her diagnosis, but her cancer journey has made them even stronger. They appreciate life’s simple pleasures, like taking their dogs for walks and feeding the ducks in the small pond near their property. Most importantly, they now have four grandchildren to spoil.

“Here we are, four years after Kathy’s diagnosis, and life is still good,” Claude smiles at Kathy as they high-five each other.

Kathy and Claude have courageously accepted each challenge together, and will continue to do so no matter what the future holds. “We consider ourselves lucky,” says Claude.

“There is always someone who is worse off than you are,” adds Kathy. “There’s nothing I particularly do to stay positive. It’s just who I am. I wake up every day and say thank you, and go to bed every night and say thank you. Every day is a gift.”

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Kathy Poirier
Kathy and Claude Poirier
Kathy Poirier and Dr. Anthony Nichols