As a business consultant in Columbus, Ohio, Keith Conroy converses with many executives and elected officials. When he received a diagnosis of tongue cancer in 2010, he was consumed by shock and disbelief.
Keith, 44, and a father of three, wondered if he would ever speak or communicate clearly again.
When Keith first noticed what looked like a blister on his tongue in 2010, he didn’t think twice, believing he had bit it or had a mouth ulcer. A few weeks later, during a routine physical exam, his doctor didn’t seem overly concerned, but Keith felt unsettled.
He saw on oral surgeon, who would ultimately biopsy the growth and deliver the shocking news: Keith had a rare squamous cell carcinoma, a type of tongue cancer.
Devastated, he decided to get a second opinion at the OSUCCC – James.
Within days, Keith had met Matthew Old, MD, a head and neck surgeon at the OSUCCC – James. He knew immediately, he said, that he was in good hands.
Dr. Old advised him to focus on beating the cancer and on the healing process. Reassured by the doctor’s demeanor and approach, Keith listened intently as the doctor recommended removing a portion of Keith’s tongue and reconstructing it using arm muscle and skin from his leg. It was a lot for Keith to process.
“I almost ended up fainting,” he said. “It was too much to take in.”
Dr. Old and his nurse asked Keith if he had any questions, but all Keith can remember is sitting, silently.
The next day, a call came in from Dr. Old. Keith remembers the doctor saying, “I gave you so much information yesterday and I could tell you were overwhelmed. I’m completely free tomorrow morning, and I’ve talked with the other doctors about your case. I want you to come in again so we can talk through it again.”
This time, Keith asked questions.
Keith wanted to know exactly what the surgery entailed, so Dr. Old went step-by-step, showing Keith a picture of his tongue and how they were going to perform the surgery. Keith was still feeling nervous until he asked how many surgeries like his were performed at the OSUCCC – James. Dr. Old reported two to three a week. Keith was shocked because he remembered his previous hospital saying they did one to two a year.
On June 14, 2010, Keith had his surgery. Forty-two percent of the left side of his tongue was removed and replaced with muscle from his arm and skin from his leg. He couldn’t talk for days afterward, due to the swelling. But the growth was gone, and the margins were clean. Keith was cancer-free.
At first, rehabilitation was slow. Forming words was hard for Keith, but his children helped his rehabilitation. “Every time I made a mistake, they would let me know,” he said.
Several months of therapy improved Keith’s speech. Once he returned to work, in November, he was speaking in professional settings once again. “I got a lot of compliments on my talking,” Keith said. By Christmas, he felt like he was no longer mispronouncing words.
Four years have passed since his initial diagnosis, and he is still cancer-free.
Keith admits his outlook on life is different now. He and his wife, Kimberly, love to travel. Keith’s new motto is Let’s not wait to travel, let’s go now. “I don’t know if I would have [thought] that before,” Keith confesses.
Keith encourages anyone facing a new diagnosis to ask lots of questions and to get any unusual growths checked immediately.
“Would I have gone to my doctor as quickly as I did if I didn’t have my physical scheduled?” Keith wondered.
Keith is still very focused on his career. But now, there are more travel plans and time with friends and family. “I am grateful for every day,” Keith said sincerely.