Denise Matteo at the age of 48, divorced & single parent of two children, a son and a daughter. One day late in June of 2008, I broke a tooth and went to my dentist. After my exam he told me I needed “dental work” such as implants, root canals, and crowns which would have cost around $13,000.00. Being a single parent, without any financial support from my ex-husband, this was not something I could afford, so I let it go. After 3 months, while at work one day, another tooth broke. This time my mouth began to bleed. My boss came in my office and saw that I was in discomfort. Knowing my situation about the dental costs, she called her dentist and I went to his office that very same day. He looked in my mouth and immediately said, “I can’t help you because you have something going on inside which I don’t have a clue as to what it is.” He sent me to an Oral Maxillofacial Dentist that same day. The doctor took one look and said, “you have a growth that appears to be a tumor.” He took a biopsy and did a 3D CAT Scan. He requested a rush for the biopsy results. Within 5 days I was given the news that nobody ever wants to hear…I had Stage IV cancer, more specifically, Squamous Cell Carcinoma!!! He called his friend, a world renowned Oral Maxillofacial surgeon at UF/Shands in Jacksonville, FL, by the name of Dr. Rui Fernandes.
I met with Dr. Fernandes that week and he ordered several other scans. After all of the tests were completed, he told me I have two options: One, leave it alone and have about 3-4 months left to live. Second, have a radical free flap surgery, which consisted of: cutting my neck/throat from my below my right ear straight up the middle of my lip, nose and face; removing all of my right cheek bone, jaw bone, teeth, sinus and 23 lymph nodes; taking the fibula bone, muscle, tissue, and vein from my right leg; several skin grafts from my thigh; 5 days in a medically induced coma; tracheotomy, and a feeding tube. Then after surgery I had a minimal chance of waking up. Once the recovery process began, I would start chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I was labeled as an “unsalvageable” case. The odds were stacked against me but giving up was NOT an option, I had to fight for my two children. They needed me and I was not going down without a fight.
I don’t know how I drove the 3 hour drive home that day! I didn’t feel bad for myself. I felt sad and angry because I knew I had to tell my son and daughter! I didn’t know how to tell them and I knew this was going to devastate them.
Seven years and over 20 surgeries later, I am here and cancer free and still undergoing reconstructive surgeries. It’s been a hard, long, painful battle. I fight every day with a POSITIVE attitude because I refuse to let this awful disease win. My children are my rock and inspiration! If not for them and my wonderful friends, I honestly don’t know how I would have managed.
My passion is to help spread the word, make awareness of this form of cancer and help others who can’t help themselves. I can relate to their struggles, from losing what is a normal life, to losing my health insurance, to sacrificing every part of me and my body in hopes to see my children another day!! I am thankful for every day that I wake up and I’m here! Stay Positve! Be Strong!