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Life Beyond Cancer: Rosalyn Salanguit on being seen — and heard — after oral cancer

October 16, 2023

Found in General

Rosalyn Salanguit can’t eat pasta al dente. Something she unfortunately discovered while vacationing in Europe last year. “It’s illegal in Italy,” she laughs of her need of a softer, less firm-to-the-bite penne.

But after being diagnosed with oral cancer in 2015, which resulted in the removal of half her tongue and two of her bottom teeth, Rosalyn is used to overcoming obstacles. Her passion — for food, family and friends, often all together as part of her Filipino culture — is so much bigger than her pain, she says.

“People take for granted the important social aspect of sharing a meal with others. It’s not just enjoying the meal but the bond that develops during the process. Conversing and eating no longer sync for me. After oral cancer, it’s one or the other.”

Though not concurrently, Rosalyn is grateful to be able to do both.

After an 11-hour surgery which included a tongue graft of tissue and an artery from her forearm and a neck dissection to remove 47 lymph nodes, her doctor cautioned her family she might not speak or eat without a feeding tube again.

Rosalyn surprised everyone by taking a few bites of food and saying a few words shortly after surgery. On good days she now speaks with a lisp. On bad days she struggles to be understood. And she’s learned to make concessions such as avoiding chewy or spicy foods and separating social activities from eating.

Preparing food has also taken on a whole new meaning, she says. For Filipinos a meal is much more than something to eat. It can mean, ‘I’m proud of you,’ ‘I love you,’ or ‘I’m sorry.’ At first Rosalyn was nervous to cook for others. “You know how they say, ‘Never trust a skinny chef?’ Well, how about one with half a tongue?”

In addition to getting comfortable in the kitchen again, Rosalyn is finding her place in the world after her life-altering cancer diagnosis. Unlike other survivors, whose physical and emotional trauma isn’t visible, my cancer journey is written on my face, she says. “I don’t have the option of when to tell my story.”

Every day interactions such as ordering a cup of coffee, answering the phone or making eye contact with someone on the street require her to confront, and sometimes explain, what she went through.

“I’ve embraced my scars,” she says. “They’ve helped me accept, even love, my other imperfections.” And Rosalyn says it’s okay if people ask her to repeat herself. She’s determined to be seen and heard — and show up for other oral cancer survivors.

Which is why, for now, she’s opting not to get dentures. “As insecure as I am about my missing teeth, I want to represent my community and that means not hiding the things that have brought me here.”

Being diagnosed as a 35-year-old woman with a disease that predominantly affects older males has also taught Rosalyn the importance of making space for people who don’t fit into societal norms and has led her to pursue a career in human resources, specializing in equity, diversity and inclusion.

Life after cancer is full of challenges, but those struggles mean that I survived, she says. “It’s OK to throw in the towel in some battles. For me that’s meant avoiding certain foods or finding new ways to eat. But it’s never OK to give up on the war. It’s never OK to give up on yourself.”

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