Encouragement, excellence and energizing anger got this woman through cancer

Photos of tongue cancer patient June Mckie in her garden. She was diagnosed with tongue cancer and her doctor is Dr. Tamer Ghanem. She is also an HFH employee (Riva Sayegh-McCullen, ©2021 Henry Ford Health System)

As a former constant watcher for suicidal patients, June McKie noticed patients talked more to encouragers.

She used that knowledge in her new job as a dialysis registration clerk at Henry Ford. But the lesson became personal when she was diagnosed with cancer and required tongue reconstruction. Four weeks after her surgery, June would be back at work, talking with dialysis patients and feeling grateful for a team of supportive Ear Nose and Throat experts and an “angel” robot.

June, a widow, lives with the things she loves – a cat that’s her “baby,” a front yard full of flowers, a back yard full of veggies for soul food and any food. She enjoys cooking, except eating tomatoes and pineapples “sizzled” her tongue. The “magic mouthwash” she’d been prescribed didn’t work like a charm.

In December 2020, after the painful white bump on June’s tongue was diagnosed as stage 1 cancer, her doctors referred her to ENT specialists at Henry Ford.

Strength through fear

Tamar Ghanem, M.D., Ph.D., director of head and neck microvascular surgery fellowship, explained that tongue reconstruction would involve intricate and extensive surgery for about eight hours. Because the tumor was on the back of the tongue and encroaching on her tonsil, a single-port robot would be used to remove the tumor and nearly 35 percent of her tongue. Next, muscle and tissue would be taken from June’s arm and used to reconstruct the tongue. Finally, the blood supply from her arm tissue would be incorporated into the tongue.

“I didn’t break down. I didn’t cry. I had to be strong,” says June. “I’d also have a tracheotomy and wouldn’t be able to talk or lift my arm for a while. And I’d need speech therapy.”

The ceramic angel

“The last thing I remember before I went under was meeting that robot. I believe that robot was a ceramic angel God sent to Henry Ford Health to take care of me through Dr. Ghanem,” says a smiling June.

Henry Ford was the first in Michigan to obtain two Da Vinci surgical robots, giving microsurgeons improved access to treat tongue and throat cancer. Dr. Ghanem, a clinical associate professor at Wayne State University, was one of the first adopters of robotic surgery after FDA approval.

June says her strength sometimes comes from getting angry. When a home nursing assistant couldn’t fix her feeding tube and left, June tried. Sticky feeding solution flew everywhere. Alone, June washed her hair and the bedding. She fixed the feeding tube, watched TV and slept soundly. “I am grateful for that woman. She made me see what I could do for myself,” says June.

An additional surgery was required in April 2021. June had been biting inadvertently on the inside of her mouth, so three teeth were removed.

“I have nothing but compliments for Henry Ford. Meeting Dr. Ghanem was the best thing that ever happened to me. He was straight up and honest. Dr. Ghanem’s team worked so hard. They listened to me. They were very mindful of what I was going through,” says June. “I wanted the surgery done quickly so I could go back to work. People needed me at my job, and I needed my mouth to talk.”

June returned to work four weeks after surgery.

“I’m there for my patients. I get up at 4 a.m. and I don’t have to be there until 9 a.m. just to stay with the people.”

“Ms. McKie has demonstrated incredible willpower in one of the worst possible situations where most people would be ready to give up,” says Dr. Ghanem. “She’s a fighter.”