Kate Brown back in 2011.




Kate Brown and her husband Brian with their newest family member baby Mitch.

Surviving Tongue Cancer and Fulfilling the Dream of Motherhood

Eight years ago, San Francisco resident Kate Brown, an otherwise healthy 32-year-old, was diagnosed with advanced stage tongue cancer. Her UCSF care team determined her best shot at survival was a total glossectomy, or tongue removal, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

Along her road to recovery, Brown faced challenges — relearning to swallow, eat and speak — and triumphs — including the birth of two sons, Xander and Mitch, who were both delivered at UCSF Medical Center.

We first shared Brown's story in 2011 here. We caught up with the busy mom to hear about life and motherhood on the other side of cancer.

What was it like to receive the full spectrum of health care — life saving and bringing life into the world — within a few years?

My husband and I always reflect upon that. If you had given me a crystal ball showing me my life now when I had a tracheostomy and tubes coming out of me, I would absolutely have thought it would be impossible. At first, even swallowing water was next to impossible. It took me approximately a year to eat somewhat normally. My speech impediment can sometimes still be really embarrassing, but I've toughened up about it over the years. It can be hard to meet new people or get to know someone well, but after awhile people get used to my speech and don't care.

We started trying for a family in 2011 and had several miscarriages and unsuccessful IUI [intrauterine insemination] treatments. We were about to pursue IVF, but Xander, born in August 2013, came along naturally. Our second son, Mitch, was born Aug. 4 of this year; he was conceived naturally as well.

After a lot of bad luck with my health, I feel very fortunate to have been blessed with two healthy babies. I hoped I'd at least be able to have one child, so to have two just feels amazing. Becoming a mother is something I felt very destined for since I was a young child. I am so happy this dream came true for me.

What was it like giving birth to Xander at Parnassus and having Mitch two years later at the new Mission Bay medical center?

Parnassus is in Cole Valley — one of the most quintessential San Francisco neighborhoods. The views from all over the building are pretty spectacular. I could see Sutro Tower from my hospital bed. A lot of the nurses and doctors had been there a long time and you could tell they worked well together and had a real partnership.

The new campus is amazing and flows together so well. You can tell it was carefully planned and well thought out. The delivery room was state of the art and brand new. The medical team all worked together so well, which always makes the patient feel much more reassured and relaxed. The team of doctors delivering Mitch was wonderful. The only glitch was when I got to my room afterward, I didn't know I needed to order my own meals on the interactive screen in the room. I was so hungry in the morning!

How are things for you, Brian and the boys at home these days?

I love being a parent. Like every working parent, it's a tough balance every day to do everything I need to do and be able to spend good quality time with them, but I feel so happy to have survived and rehabilitated as well as I have.

Since we read out loud to the kids a lot, I've noticed my pronunciation is better. Xander's favorite books are "Peek in my Pocket," "Good Night Moon" and "Little Blue Truck." Mitch just likes our voices so far — and whatever Xander likes.

Our favorite thing to do with the boys is to go to the beach or park, our local farmers market or Children's Fairyland. I signed Xander up for swim classes at the Y. He is an enthusiastic and active little boy, so anything physical to burn through his boundless toddler energy is good for us both.

What is your long-term prognosis?

The highest rate of recurrence is within the first three years, and most oral cancer that reoccurs would be considered a "new primary," not a recurrence. I have checkups with my surgeon and radiation doctors every two years.

What has been most helpful to help you get through it all?

Positive thinking and trying to make small victories with my recovery progress each week. I still try to work on my speech by recording myself in the car. My sons love the sound of my voice, and that makes me feel amazing.


Interviewed by freelance writer Leslie Ayers. Photos by Tom Seawell.