After Tongue Cancer, a Newfound Determination to Succeed

"If you've survived cancer then you have the will to live and a strong desire to see things through, to be strong even when you know it's impossible to be strong."

Matthew Plourde
photo of Matthew Plourde

Battling tongue cancer nearly a dozen years ago, Matthew Plourde reached deep within himself and summoned a quality — perseverance — that today pushes him to pursue his deepest desires.

Back then, perseverance helped him wrestle his life-threatening cancer at an extraordinarily young age, 23. It also helped him cope with a sudden surgery and arduous radiation and recovery.

Today perseverance helps him pursue a passion for writing, all the while holding a full-time job and being a devoted family man.

“Cancer brings a certain tenacity. If you’ve survived cancer then you have the will to live and a strong desire to see things through, to be strong even when you know it’s impossible to be strong,” says Plourde, now 35, of Southington, Conn. As a writer, that tenacity steers him toward his craft, and away from down-time temptations like TV. “I know if I want to do more, I need to get up early, stay up late and get it done.”

A puzzling diagnosis

Back in 1999, Plourde had recently graduated college when he noticed pain on his tongue’s left side. By Memorial Day weekend, it hurt so much he couldn’t eat, so he went to a local clinic.

“The doctor took one look in my mouth, stepped back, and had a puzzled look on his face,” Plourde recalls. A second doctor concluded Plourde needed to come back for a biopsy. “I didn’t know what a biopsy was,” he says.

The finding: Stage 3 squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue, a 4.5-centimeter ulcer back near his molars.

Only about 2% of tongue cancer cases are diagnosed in patients younger than 35.  And Plourde was not a smoker or much of a drinker, key risk factors for the disease.

Adjusting to 'after'

In June, Plourde had a 13-hour operation to remove the tumor and rebuild his tongue. He spent a week in an induced coma, another week in the emergency care unit, and two more weeks in the hospital. “I don’t remember much, except I think my life is very clearly divided into ‘before’ and ‘after,’” he says.

A positive lymph node meant Plourde had to undergo 2 months of radiation, too. He worried about the worst that could happen — a second cancer, or losing all his teeth, part of his jaw or the ability to produce saliva. Swallowing became so painful he needed a feeding tube.

After radiation, life veered toward normalcy. A college girlfriend, Bonnie, reappeared. (They married in 2001.) Plourde threw himself into a computer consulting career. But he had to fight a fatigue so powerful that he went straight to bed most evenings.

The fatigue, it turned out, was due to a thyroid deficiency caused by the radiation; he takes medicine for that now. Saliva production returned, mostly. He got comfortable chewing on one side of his mouth. And his sense of taste eventually recovered.

His sense of self, though, was changing. While he and his wife focused on work and home, attempts to have children, the eventual birth of a daughter and the adoption from Vietnam of a son, something felt amiss.

What Plourde once envisioned as a short-term job had lasted far longer. “I realized my cancer was 7 or 8 years ago but I’m still living that life,” he recalls. 

'It's going to be great'

 Instead, he wanted to find more opportunity to write. He wanted to travel. So he took a big risk. He left his secure job in 2008 — as friends’ careers were upended in the Great Recession — and began working for a global software company, with the promise of extensive travel. For longer gigs, his family could come, too.

“Now I can write on airplanes, if I’m alone in a hotel room, when the kids are in school,” he says. “I decided, instead of waiting for something to happen with my writing, to take things into my own hands — because I know that one day you’re alive and well, and the next day you’re in a hospital.” He is self-publishing his first novel, a fantasy science fiction work, which took him about 10 years to write.

His second novel took him 2 months. “Surviving cancer has given me the strength, the drive, the determination to know I am going to do this and it’s going to be great and I’m not going to let anyone else tell me otherwise,” he says, “no matter what they tell me the odds are of succeeding.”

He adds: “I think I like the person I’ve become.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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