Fighting cancer that rarely targets black women has made me a braver person

As told to Nicole Audrey Spector

It’s probably just a sinus infection.

That’s what my doctor thought when I came in a year ago with earaches, swollen lymph nodes, difficulty swallowing, and congestion. I was examined and sent home with antibiotics.

The swelling of my lymph nodes subsided, but all my other symptoms got worse. It soon became difficult to swallow food. I relied on smoothies for food and, with no intention of losing weight, I went from 160lbs to 120lbs in just six weeks.

Seeing my drastic decline, my doctor ordered a CT scan of my head and neck and said something wasn’t right. She saw a lump in my upper throat and scheduled a biopsy.

Just a few nights after seeing the doctor, I woke up unable to breathe, called 911 and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. I had an emergency tracheostomy so I could breathe through a tube in my throat and a gastrostomy tube in my stomach so I could get nutrients.

After several examinations, it was determined that I had squamous cell carcinoma of the hypopharynx, a form of throat cancer. I learned of my diagnosis in the worst possible way — via a text alert from the hospital on my phone linking to a report that didn’t make much sense to me. I forwarded it to my GP and said, “I don’t think I have cancer?”

But I did, she confirmed. And it was aggressive.

I was in total disbelief. I was just completely stunned – as were my doctors, who explained to me that I am a highly unlikely candidate for this type of cancer. I am a black female, just 40 years old at the time of diagnosis, a non-smoker and non-drinker with no history of human papillomavirus (HPV).

People with this type of head and neck cancer are usually men and older than 55 years. Tobacco users and excessive drinking are also more at risk.

The diagnosis was devastating, but there was only a little relief to finally know what was going on. My symptoms had already bulldozed my life, forcing me to interrupt my quest for my teaching license. That meant I lost my job as a teacher (a job I loved) and had to become disabled. My once independent and prosperous life was in jeopardy. I was in danger of losing my house and my car.

Leanora Sneed2022 (Photo/Ian Giles Photography)

Fortunately, my friends, family, fraternity sisters and church community have stood up to cover all my expenses. This has been so helpful and I have been moved to tears just thinking about it. Without them I don’t know where I would be. Their support allowed me to navigate through this challenging time without worrying about money.

When I found out I had cancer, my doctors explained my options to me. I could try chemoradiation therapy or I could have a laryngectomy — surgery to remove my larynx.

I did not hesitate for a moment to opt for chemoradiation, which I started immediately. This was an extremely painful process. I still have burns on my neck from the radiation.

There were times during treatment when I sank into depression. I remember one morning watching crowds of children pass by as the school was let out. I was so angry. “I want my life back!” I thought, curling up in a ball of tears.

Then I realized I had a choice: I could acknowledge my illness and fight it tooth and nail with dignity and grace, or I could indulge in self-pity and resentment.

The second way would have been easy. I chose the former.

But it wasn’t as simple as snapping my fingers and getting brave. To build my mind, I needed to deepen my relationship with God.

I started to spend time with God as I like it. I do this by journaling, meditating, and praying every morning. It’s an intense exercise that I do every day – often up to two hours. During these sessions, my soul is open and completely free to receive positivity and strength.

In addition to deepening my relationship with God, I began to pay more attention to the needs of my body. I was getting minimal nutrients through my feeding tube, but not much more than that. I started making my own juices with all kinds of vegetables, fruits and herbs. Since integrating homemade juice into my regimen, I feel so much more alive and capable.

Unfortunately, the chemoradiation didn’t get rid of the cancer, and my only viable option was immunotherapy or the laryngectomy. Because I believe that surgery should always be the last resort, I opted for immunotherapy. But it didn’t suit my body well. And so, here I am, looking at the last resort: surgery.

I will be having the laryngectomy soon. It is a major operation and after that you have to learn to swallow again. You no longer have a voice box, so you have to learn to speak through a voice prosthesis. I breathe from my neck and can’t smell.

I will have to learn to live in a new body. But I’m looking forward to the surgery because I know I can eat and taste again after that. Can you imagine? Bite into a slice of pineapple? Can you feel the sweetness dripping down your chin?

Most importantly, I will be cancer free – and there is no greater gift than that.

Yet I am not completely without fear. I finally step into the unknown with the certainty that I will bring out yet another version of myself. I know I’ll miss smelling it, so I’m stocking up on scented candles and aromatherapy now so I can enjoy that feeling one last time.

I know I’ll miss my voice, so I’ve started recording myself reading letters to my loved ones — even the people I’ve never met, like my future husband.

I want them all to know that my voice is still strong and resonant: it just sounds different from what I was born with. I want them – and everyone else – to know that cancer has no color. It can happen to anyone. And that’s okay. Faith and science help us through it.

As I prepare for surgery sleep, knowing I will wake up in a completely different body, I have total peace of mind. There is nothing to be afraid of.

This resource was created with support from Merck.

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