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How Connection and Community Helped Me Survive Head and Neck Cancer

Editor's Note

This story was written by Denise D., a head and neck cancer survivor who advocates for people impacted by this disease.

Finding out via exploratory surgery that the lump on my neck was Stage IV head and neck cancer was not something I ever prepared for. I also never could have imagined the opportunities that have since presented themselves. Through this experience, I have deepened my sense of spirituality and helped others in many ways, including through my participation in Made of More, an initiative that aims to help individuals impacted by head and neck cancer find support and community.

At the age of 50, I was working full time, enjoying time with friends, singing, and biking long distances. To hear that I might only have three months to live if I didn’t take immediate action was discouraging, to say the least. I had a feeding tube inserted and radical neck dissection, which removed the left side of my neck. Doctors warned me that after this procedure, speaking could be difficult and my singing voice might not return. I was left even more disheartened. 

So, I leaned on my conviction and my community to get through. I began to write about my day-to-day experiences online so my family, friends, church community, colleagues, and others could keep up with my progress. I soon gained a substantial number of followers, and realized there were other people out there eager to hear my story and draw inspiration from my experience. 

After witnessing the power of sharing my story, I learned how transformative it can be for people with head and neck cancer to come together as a community and show that they are made of more than their disease. Contributing to Made of More is important to me because I want to shine a spotlight on head and neck cancer, help those who are newly diagnosed, and show that it’s possible to not only survive, but also thrive.

Storytelling is also key to help others understand the complexities of head and neck cancer. The long-term side effects are tough and can get even tougher as we age. Receiving a diagnosis can also be an especially scary time, not only for you, but also for those who support you. Connecting with others impacted by head and neck cancer is important to find understanding, empathy, and guidance. That’s why I published a book and started a podcast, among other activities, to help reach the head and neck cancer community. 

I want people who have been diagnosed with head and neck cancer to know they are more than their disease, and that support and resources to help navigate the obstacles are available. Challenges are doorways of transformation.

Today, I’m proud to say my singing voice did return. Just 22 months after my diagnosis, I sang the national anthem to a packed house of fans at Fenway Park. A month after that, I biked 87 miles in 24 hours to raise money for children’s cancer research.

There is hope, and I’m living proof there is potential to thrive after a head and neck cancer diagnosis. I am sharing my story through the Made for More initiative to help others realize what’s possible. 

To learn more about the Made of More initiative, created in collaboration with the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance (HNCA), Support for People with Oral and Head and Neck Cancer (SPOHNC), Thyroid, Head & Neck Cancer (THANC) Foundation, CancerCare, and Eisai Inc., visit

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