It’s not cancer. That’s what doctor after doctor told Britta Watters in the spring of 2010, as she grew increasingly concerned about a sore in her mouth that wouldn’t heal.
“Each one said, ‘Are you a heavy drinker, a smoker, a dipper?’” says the Nashville, Tenn., middle school teacher. “When I said no, they’d say, ‘Honey, there’s no way it can be cancer.”
But when Britta, then 33, had the spot biopsied, the results shocked everyone: stage 4 oral cancer.
“When you’re young and healthy, you always imagine yourself being young and healthy,” Britta says. “You think of cancer as something that happens to older people, or people who haven’t taken care of themselves. It changes your worldview.”
As she and her family came to terms with the diagnosis, Britta threw herself into researching treatment options. Surgery—which in her case meant removing the cancer as well as a half her tongue, a salivary gland, lymph nodes and some teeth—was not without significant risk.
“My son Jaideep had just turned one; I thought, ‘What if he doesn’t remember the sound of my voice? What if I can’t tell him I love him?’” she says. “Those were the scary 3-in-the-morning thoughts.” Not to mention that as a teacher, her voice is an essential tool in her career.
But because it was the option that boasted the best prognosis, Britta ultimately opted for the surgery, which was successful, followed by an eight-week course of chemotherapy and radiation.
As she recovered, she began working with a speech therapist two to three times a week to help adjust her speech to accommodate the changes in her mouth. What she learned surprised her.
“We worked on things I hadn’t thought about before, like endurance for your vocal chords, which a teacher needs, and how important hydration is for proper speech,” she says. “It opened up my mind to a whole other area I had completely taken for granted.”
Britta found that her body changed in other ways, too. She describes the surgery as a bit like having a gastric bypass at the mouth level—it reduced the amount of food she can take in, and she has to chew more slowly since she has only her left molars. She lost the weight she had gained while pregnant and more. Now, she says, she has “a runner’s body,” though she had never been much of an athlete.
The new body proved to be an inspiration, especially as she fought through the draining effects of treatment.
“I have never felt so tired in my life. I really feel like there should be a different word for it than fatigue. It was overwhelming,” she says of the time during and just after her treatments. “The nurses kept recommending interval training— doing 5 minutes of work, like loading the dishwasher, then taking 25 minutes to rest. But I needed a big-picture goal.”
So just a few months after returning to work and less than a year after surgery, Britta completed Nashville’s Music City Half Marathon—only her second ever—in just over three hours.
Britta and a friend at the 2011 Music City Half Marathon
“It was important for me to have something to work toward,” she says. “I refused to let an illness define me in a negative way. If this is going to be part of who I am, which I have accepted, good things had better come from it.”
To that end, in her life post-diagnosis, Britta is constantly reevaluating what matters most. She dropped one of her part-time jobs and is phasing out the second in favor more quality family time. She’s traded her academic journals for “junk fiction” and gets weekly massages to help promote lymphatic drainage and just plain destress. And this month, to celebrate the latest round of clean scans, Britta and her husband Ajay embarked on a second honeymoon to England and France.
“It’s not like I’m somehow magically changed and the sky’s always blue—I’m still learning to prioritize,” she says. “But that’s getting easier. There are things I wouldn’t trade about this experience. It sounds corny, but cancer made me a better person.”