A Time and Place for Celebration



The five acres surrounding Marsha Stensland’s home are the perfect place for family gatherings.

The Larchwood, Iowa woman loves living along a river, in a place with enough open space for her dog to roam and her relatives to get together.

“We like to call this whole area Stensland Valley because we all live right around here,” she says, walking near a garden shed where children and a few adults painted pictures during a family Fourth of July party. “It’s a nice peaceful spot and there’s plenty of room for all the grandkids.”

The connection to family has always been important to Marsha. When she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer along her jaw, those family ties became both her support and her reason to heal.

Something wasn’t right

For months, Marsha just hadn’t been feeling good. She was tired and generally sick. When she went to see her doctor, she noticed a lump near her wisdom teeth on her lower right jaw.

By the next week, Marsha got the news that a biopsy showed a tumor, a mucoepidermoid carcinoma, along her jaw.

“My thought was, now that I know what it is, I can deal with it,” Marsha says. “It’s time to get better.”

She met with oral cancer specialist Dr. W. Chad Spanos, and together they made a plan to fight the cancer. She felt confident about her prognosis and fully supported by his whole team.

“I felt like I didn’t have just one doctor, I needed a battle plan,” Marsha says. “I really didn’t have to worry because they had a battle plan and they were fighting with me and were right behind me the whole way.”

Taking action

Dr. Spanos and his colleague Dr. John Lee, removed the tumor with a high-tech surgical tool, called TransOral Robotic Surgery. The procedure uses a robotic arm guided by a surgeon that can work with precision in tight spaces, allowing for less invasive surgery with better outcomes for patients.

After her surgery, Marsha had daily radiation treatments for six weeks in Sioux Falls. Her family members took turns driving her to the appointments, adding in a little shopping and a visit to a favorite restaurant before her first treatment.

While the actual treatment was only about 10 minutes, her energy levels were low. She would come home and sleep for hours after each session five days a week. By April 2010, she was done.

“They had really worked to make sure I was comfortable throughout this whole time, but now it was time to be done fighting,” Marsha says, stroking the head of her lab-mix puppy. “It was time to let my body heal.”

For weeks her throat was raw and nausea and difficulty swallowing made eating difficult. She went to physical therapy to regain function in her mouth. A close friend who had gone through cancer treatments helped prepare her for what to expect and gave her tips for ways to get through the difficult days.

She and her younger sister, who had both smoked for years, made a pact together to quit the habit. Marsha said it was easier for her to do it than her sibling because her body was undergoing so many other changes, but the two sisters hung in together and kicked cigarettes for good.

Something to celebrate

After a few months of recuperation, with plenty of support from friends and family, Marsha started to feel better.

“I suddenly had the energy to do the things I wanted to do,” she says. “One day you wake up and you feel like nothing every happened.”

With over two years since her last radiation treatment, Marsha has been able to celebrate reports from Dr. Spanos that her body remains clear and free of the cancer. She enjoys reconnecting regularly for checkups with the doctor who saved her life, she says. “He’s almost more like a friend than a doctor,” Marsha says.

Today, Marsha lives her life with a little more bravery, trying things like riding on a fast moving raft behind a boat on the river. She has plenty to celebrate, hosting family parties at her home once again.

“I just want to celebrate every day anymore,” Marsha says. “I wake up and every day is beautiful.”

Posted Date: February 2013

A Time and Place for Celebration

As part of a large, closely knit family, Marsha Stensland loved to host big family get-togethers at her acreage along the river. After her journey through treatment for a rare form of oral cancer, her family gathers to celebrate her life.