Office of Institutional Advancement

Jefferson Doctors Give Hope and Healing to Mouth Cancer Patient

What started out for John Wilson as a long-procrastinated trip to the dentist for a simple check-up ended in a surreal odyssey through the complexities of head and neck cancer.

John’s journey from cancer patient to cancer survivor began in January 2016 when his dentist referred him to an oral surgeon to have some teeth pulled.

“When the doctor looked into my mouth, he said, ‘I’ve seen this before; I believe you have squamous cell cancer in your gum,’” John says. “It was a low point in my life. I was pretty bummed out... I knew I had to go home and tell my wife, Donna, ‘Guess what—I’ve got cancer.’”

The surgeon referred John to an ear, nose, and throat specialist near the couple’s home in Landenberg, Pennsylvania, who said he could operate but preferred to send him where he really needed to go—Jefferson. Within two weeks, John and Donna met with David Cognetti, MD, Vice Chair, Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery.

“I felt lost,” says Donna of the diagnosis. “I felt lost—until we came to Jefferson.” After the consultation with Cognetti, she came away with newfound optimism. “I thought, ‘We got this; he’s going to be fine.’”

John felt similar hope as Cognetti explained the surgery and treatment plan. “He told me, ‘You’re going to go through a little rough patch, but you’re going to be okay.’ I remember looking in his eyes and seeing the confidence, and from that point, I knew I was going to be okay.”

That “rough patch” included a 14-hour surgery that consisted of a mandibulectomy—surgery to remove the jaw bone and soft tissue along with the cancer—and free-flap reconstruction—plastic surgery to rebuild the jaw using a piece of bone from a lower leg. While Cognetti worked on John’s jaw, Howard Krein, MD, PhD, co-director of Jefferson’s Herbert Kean Center for Facial Aesthetics, took a small piece of bone from his fibula, as well as an artery and vein, to perform the facial reconstruction.

Through the entire ordeal, Donna was kept apprised of the operation’s progress every hour—something that reassured her. “And after it was done, I got a big hug from the doctors, and that’s when I knew everything went well.”

Because the surgery can cause severe swelling and difficulty breathing, John had to have a tracheostomy tube. Although he woke from surgery feeling like he had been “run over by a truck,” he says, he started to recover quickly.

“I had a good experience in intensive care—the nurses were great. The next day they moved me upstairs, and there was physical therapy,” he says. After six days in the hospital he proved he was able to eat on his own (“mashed potatoes and gravy and processed, mushed up turkey stuff”), so he was allowed to go home. With the help of the visiting nurses Jefferson arranged, Donna was able to handle the wound care and temporary tracheostomy tube.

Within six months, the 63-year-old construction engineer was back to normal—in top physical shape, walking between six and seven miles a day at work. Intricate dental work to replace his missing teeth came about a year and a half later. Daniel I. Taub, DDS, MD, vice chair and program director, Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, fixed implants into his mouth so that he was finally able to eat his first solid meal since the operation—an Italian hoagie. John smiles when he remembers, “I was thinking about that Italian hoagie for months!”

John credits his recovery to the loving care from his wife, the support of his three grown daughters, and the doctors and staff at Jefferson.

“I’m very fortunate—very lucky to be alive,” John says, noting he is now cancer-free. “Doctors Congnetti and Krein were the saving grace for me. All the care I got was exceptional. It was a fantastic, happy ending.”

“Jefferson gave us his life back,” Donna says. Then she corrects herself: “Jefferson gave us our life back.”