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Joan Cummings

My journey to recovery from head and neck cancer

"I feel like I’ve been given a second chance at life,” said Joan Cummings, who is now in her third year of remission after being diagnosed with cancer of the mouth.

“I’m very grateful to KU Med, ... The staff has so much knowledge. I tell everyone that if they know a person with cancer, they should go to KU.”

Joan Cummings has a lot to live for, including her great-grandson, Josiah.

-Joan Cummings

It is clear that Cummings knows how to enjoy life, even during her long journey to recovery. After her treatment at the hospital, she spent two uncomfortable years with a tracheotomy and feeding tube.

That meant almost two years without any food or water passing her lips.

Still, Cummings was able to bake and cook for others – including the Cancer Center staff and doctors.

Feeding others was almost as rewarding as eating the creations herself.

“Once I told her I didn’t like a certain type of cake, so she made a different one,” laughed Beth Haines, RN, who was part of the team caring for Cummings.

“I’m very grateful to KU Med,” said Cummings, who lives in Kansas City, North. “The staff has so much knowledge. I tell everyone that if they know a person with cancer, they should go to KU.”

Cummings’ own experience began with difficulty swallowing. With the instincts of a person who “never gets sick,” she knew her problem was more serious than tonsils.

The ear, nose and throat specialist who diagnosed her cancer referred her to otolaryngologist Terance Tsue, MD, who specializes in head and neck cancer.

“He told me I was going to need reconstructive surgery and that Dr. Tsue was tops,” she recalled.

Before performing surgery on nodes in her neck, though, Dr. Tsue wanted to shrink the tumor with chemotherapy and radiation.

So Cummings worked with oncologist Peter VanVeldhuizen, MD, and radiation oncologist Eashwer Reddy, MD, to prepare for the surgical part of her treatment.

Cummings, who is now 70, has returned to part-time receptionist work at Multivac, Inc. She praises the care and support she received from staff in the outpatient Cancer Center and the inpatient oncology unit, Unit 42, where she was hospitalized several times.

“It’s amazing how these people can lift you up and help you,” she said, mentioning her nurses, social worker and dietitian by name. She became especially close to Diann Godbey, RN.

“I discovered so many new and wonderful things during my illness. In addition to my faith, I had so much support from the people at the hospital, my family and my friends to get me through it all.”