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Each Day A Gift

Peeking over the edge of a flower box, Paula Fremd reaches out to touch a bright bloom.

The 97-year-old woman admires the view from the garden in the care home where she’s known as the fun, feisty woman with whom everyone loves to talk. She stretches her arm to point to rolling clouds that move over a wide-open plateau just outside Yankton, SD, where she watches the sky every day.

“I look out the window and I can see the river. I can see all the way to Nebraska,” Paula says. “I’m so glad I get to see more sunrises and sunsets.”

Three years ago, Paula was diagnosed with a squamous cell carcinoma in the palate of her mouth. An innovative surgical procedure removed the cancer and rebuilt her mouth, saving her life. She’s been going strong ever since.

Endless curiosity

Paula was an active retiree who lived in her own home until just a few years ago. She battled through throat cancer and uterine cancer in the past, but rarely struggles with health issues day to day.

Over the years Paula has always been curious and engaged in life. Even today in her nursing home room she listens daily to recordings of college science lectures and reads a mystery novel nearly every day.

“I’m still learning at 97,” says Paula. “I just never have a dull moment. Who wants to just sit around and watch TV?”

So when her dentist noticed a growth on her soft palate near her teeth, the family took action immediately to get it checked out. Some doctors were hesitant to take action right away, due to her age and the seriousness of the tumor, but not at Sanford Cancer. Her family took her to see oral cancer specialists Dr. John Lee and Dr. W. Chad Spanos. The experts in head and neck cancer treatment felt confident Paula could handle the treatment to remove her cancer and save her life.

“They could tell she had an incredible quality of life and that she was healthy and strong,” said her daughter Teresa Donahue. “There is no question she’s a survivor.”

An option for Paula

The doctors recommended a surgical procedure called microvascular free flap surgery. An operation would remove the cancer in her mouth, detaching and reattaching skin and blood vessels from her forearm to reconstruct her palate.

“It’s amazing,” says Paula, pointing to area on her wrist. “They put this in my mouth and it’s growing. You just can’t believe it.”

Paula came through the surgery with no complications. Follow-up care has shown no further signs of cancer and the grafted tissue has healed well, allowing Paula to return to her normal routine. She’s able to eat, speak and read voraciously.

“They said I might lose my voice. Can you imagine that?” says Paula. “But listen to me now. Ta da!”

A team of care

Her daughter said the whole family appreciated the way the Sanford Cancer staff treated their mother throughout the process. The cancer survivorship team cared for the whole family with compassion and nurse navigators helped them coordinate appointments and answered their questions.

“We felt confident because of the doctors and the whole staff,” says Teresa. “They not only saved her life, but they made her feel important every step of the way.”

In her room, where nearly every piece of furniture is decorated with jungle prints, Paula says she has much to be thankful for. She loves visiting with family, reading new books, learning new things and watching the beautiful skies right out her window.

Paula is proud to be a three-time cancer survivor. Every minute is worth celebrating, she says. “I love my doctors. I love them both,” says Paula. “I love to live and they saved my life. I’ll probably make 100. Maybe even more.”

Back to Sanford Head and Neck Cancer Services.

Posted Date: November 2013