Tongue Cancer Survivor Finds Joy, Perseverance, and Strength

Written By:Stacy Simon

I can see many things to find joy in. I see life with a new pair of eyes on the other side of this trial and can look back to see the lessons learned, the love shown, and the life given.

Billy Streu

Billy Streu, 35, says 4 years after he completed treatment for tongue cancer, he’s in the best physical shape of his life and he feels better than he’s ever felt.

“I can see many things to find joy in,” said Streu. “I am stronger. I am a better man. My character has grown and I have changed. I see life with a new pair of eyes on the other side of this trial and can look back to see the lessons learned, the love shown, and the life given. I am healed. I am a survivor. I have persevered. I am loved. Being surrounded by the support I had from my wife, my family, my friends, my God, I know I can face anything ahead of me.”

Streu and his wife were working as Christian missionaries in Bosnia when he felt something on his tongue while brushing his teeth. Over time, the sore began to bother him more and more, and he showed it to a nurse working on his team. She told him he should have it checked out.

Getting cancer treatment in Croatia

The Bosnian town where Streu lived had one MRI machine, and a technician came from Zagreb, Croatia once a week to scan patients. Although Streu had a good command of Serbo-Croatian, some language barriers did cause a few misunderstandings and delays. Eventually Streu got his MRI, and then a biopsy, and was diagnosed with tongue cancer.

Streu’s best option for treatment was in Zagreb, about a 2-hour drive from where he lived in Bosnia with his wife and their 10-month-old daughter. He had surgery to remove the tumor on his tongue, as well as 7 lymph nodes in his neck. He spent 10 days in the hospital trying to communicate with his nurses, made difficult by their language differences, as well as the surgery itself, which made talking difficult. At one point, Streu used the wrong word to ask for pain medication and the nurses thought he wanted medication that would actually give him pain. “Who would ask for that?” said Streu.

The testing of Streu’s lymph nodes found that one contained cancer, but luckily it had not spread beyond that. Once he was well enough to travel, he and his family flew to Texas, where he would receive radiation and chemotherapy for 6 weeks.

When they arrived in Texas, friends surprised them at the airport and took them to an apartment with the rent and utilities paid, refrigerator and pantry stocked, and beds made with fresh linens. They even supplied a crib and toys for the Streus’ baby girl. “We knew we were loved, but the support we received from family and friends was beyond overwhelming,” says Streu.

The worst day

Streu’s treatment caused painful side effects including mouth sores and a rash that extended from his chin, up his face, and into his ear canal. But Streu says his most difficult day was when he had to decide whether to take a drug that would help fight his cancer, but could cause infertility.

“The possibility that I could not have another child of my own really scared me and broke my heart,” said Streu. A friend set him straight. He asked Streu, “Would you rather be more certain you can have another child? Or make sure you see your daughter graduate from school and walk down the aisle at her wedding?” Streu started the new treatment several days later.

Today, he and his wife have a second child, a 2-year-old son. “His middle name is Josiah, which means ‘God heals,’" said Streu. “We like to call him our miracle baby. I am blessed.”

Love and encouragement

Streu recently celebrated his 4th anniversary of completing cancer treatment. Radiation left him with dry mouth, and he can’t eat all the food he used to enjoy – especially hot sauce. But “dry mouth and taste bud changes are worth the battle,” he says.

During Streu’s treatment, a member of his health care team showed him a news story about a cancer survivor who trained for a marathon during her treatment for breast cancer. He found that inspirational. “That’s what I want – to be able to find that perseverance and strength,” said Streu.

He began training himself and has now completed his first half-marathon. “This helped me find hope and keep life feeling as normal as possible,” said Streu.

And like the woman from the news article, Streu wants to share his own story to help someone else who may be struggling. “The battle is easier when you can find inspiration and strength through someone else’s story,” said Streu. “I want to share my story with others who need to be loved and encouraged.”

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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