Family House Diaries - Jean Rogers: A Smile of Gratitude

Wed, June 29, 2011 — A smile, even a crooked one, speaks volumes about a Robeson County native’s gratitude for her family, her medical team and the fellow patients she met along the way.

Family House Diaries - Jean Rogers: A Smile of Gratitude click to enlarge Jean Rogers

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, NC — The lopsided smile is testimony to Jean Rogers’ gratitude.

Rogers, 58, of Fairmont, N.C., in Robeson County, underwent surgery at UNC Hospitals on March 8 to remove a cancerous right parotid gland and 20 lymph nodes, followed by chemotherapy and daily radiation that kept her in Chapel Hill weekdays until late May.

“We have good doctors back home, but I was sent to where I needed to be,” said Rogers, a career Social Security Administration employee, eyes twinkling.

“And I had three good-looking doctors here,” she added, grinning crookedly ear to ear.

The parotid glands are the body’s largest salivary glands.  They are located in front of the ears and extend to the area beneath the ear lobes along the lower border of the jawbones.  The nerve that controls facial movement runs through the parotid glands.

For Rogers, the lower portion of that nerve had died because of direct involvement of the tumor, leaving her with paralysis in her lower face and fueling suspicion that the tumor was malignant.

“In an ENT practice parotid tumors are not terribly rare, and about 80 percent of them are benign,” said Mark C. Weissler, MD, distinguished professor of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery at the UNC School of Medicine, who diagnosed Rogers’ tumor as malignant, removed the tumor and dead nerve, and conducted a nerve graft. Dr. Weissler is also a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Hers is an unusual cancer of the parotid gland and arose from a previously benign and much more common tumor,” Dr. Weissler said.  “She is the case in point of how a benign tumor can degenerate into a cancer and why we usually recommend removing even benign parotid tumors.”

The nerve grafting should bring back much of Rogers facial function, Dr. Weissler said.  “The proximal [nearest] end of the nerve will actually grow back out through the nerve graft to reinnervate her face,” he said. “It’s a very slow process, with about six months being the soonest that any return of function would be expected.”

Because of the aggressive nature of Rogers’ cancer, treatment with radiation and chemotherapy were required.  She breezed through both with no debilitating side effects.

“I’ know I’m lucky,” Rogers said.  “I’ve had a little pressure, but no pain.  I’ve not lost my hearing or had mouth sores.  I lost a little bit of hair to the radiation, and my skin is a little red along my neck and jaw.”

Dr. Weissler thinks of Rogers as the unsinkable Molly Brown, the Titantic survivor who exhorted fellow lifeboat passengers to search for more survivors after the great ship sank.

“She’s a resilient human being, and her persistence and perseverance are to be admired,” Dr. Weissler said. “She’s not yet at six months-post surgery, and her face is a bit lopsided, but she’s still able to enjoy life.  We are very hopeful for her long-term prognosis.”

While in Chapel Hill, Rogers stayed at SECU Family House, a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals.  Family House provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.  While there, Rogers met two other patients who also had had their parotid glands removed.

“A lot of friendship and fellowship goes on at Family House,” Rogers said.  “It’s like being in a family home, but also having space to yourself. If I wasn’t having treatment, I would have thought I was on a vacation.  It’s that nice.”

Rogers finished treatment and returned home on May 20 in time to attend her manager’s retirement dinner that evening.

“I have to brag on my co-workers who ‘adopted a day’ for me to help defray the cost of staying at Family House,” Rogers said, adding that they all had a good cry together the day she was diagnosed.  “And when my medical leave ran out on May 13 they pitched in extra days to help me that last week of treatment.”

And tears flowed spontaneously when Rogers talked about the support she had received from her family especially husband Keith, daughter Crystal, son Benton, grandson Bradley, and brothers and sisters and mother and mother-in-law.

Rogers is eager to return to work, but must allow her skin, irritated by the radiation, to calm down and heal.

“I’m very happy to be done with the treatment and be back home,” Rogers said.  “Everything about this has been good.  I’ve always been blessed and still am."

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

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