Tongue cancer warrior gives back and raises awareness

Kat Howell never considered herself part of the one percent. But when the 29-year-old was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2019, she became just that. A rare disease accounting for only one percent of all cancer cases in the United States on an annual basis, tongue cancer is even less common among young people like Kat.

A non-smoker and non-drinker, Kat was shocked when a gash in her tongue turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma. “I had never even heard those words! It was the worst news of my life,” she remembers. Now, she calls herself a “tongue cancer warrior.”

The Texas native was working in residence life at a Boston-area college and soon started having consultations with oncologists around the city. Although Dana-Farber Cancer Institute was one of her last visits, she knew before leaving the building that it was where she would seek treatment.

Kat participated in an immunotherapy clinical trial to shrink her tumor before surgery. Then, during her nine-hour surgery, doctors removed the tumor from her tongue and transplanted skin from her wrist and blood vessels from her forearm to replace the lost tongue area, and, lastly, took a skin graft from her thigh to help heal her arm. “It was like they were playing human Legos with my body!” she jokes.

After removing the tumor, Kat had 30 sessions of radiation over the winter of 2019-2020, which caused some pain and side effects. “Although it was tough, Dana-Farber was there for me every step of the way,” Kat says. “I felt like the nurses and techs in radiation were my own family; that’s how much they cared about my wellbeing.”

Treatment side effects made it difficult for Kat to eat, breathe, and talk—vital functions that affected the way she lived her life.

“During treatment, my world was turned upside down. I couldn’t workout or pursue my career goals; I could barely talk,” she remembers. “But if I had to go through it, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”

Today, Kat is back at work and getting active again. Despite COVID-19 quarantine, she is walking and riding her bike often—up from only five minutes of walking during treatment to over two hours now. To keep her recovery up and give back to Dana-Farber, Kat participated in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk: Your Way this year, walking a 10k with her team and fundraising for the Young Adult Program at Dana-Farber, a support program for young people, like Kat, going through cancer treatment.

Thanks to fundraising efforts through the Jimmy Fund, clinical trials, like the one Kat participated in, and support programs, including the Young Adult Program, are possible. “Dana-Farber saved my life, and countless others, and that care would not be possible without the crucial support of fundraisers—thank you!”