Patient Stories

Surviving Tongue Cancer: A Lifesaving Second Opinion

Apr. 18, 2024

“We took care of you as a person, not just as a tongue.” How Danielle’s second opinion on cancer led her to keep her tongue thanks to the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center

When you think of cancer, you may think of more common types like breast, prostate, lung, or blood cancers.

April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Association for Cancer Research, head and neck cancers make up about four percent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States each year.

Examples of head and neck cancers include cancers in the throat, oral cavity, voice box, salvatory glands and nasal gland.

Danielle's Story: Surviving Tongue Cancer after a Lifesaving Second Opinion

Danielle’s Story

Danielle Davis went to the dentist in 2018. The 33-year-old young mom was hoping she could get some help for some pain she was having in her mouth andaround her head.

“I just thought I burned my tongue on soup,” Danielle said. “I was having some ear pain and ear ringing, but I didn't think it was connected. And then, of course, I did have some stabbing pain. I just thought, you know, I bit my tongue or, you know, whatever that could have caused. But I never thought they would be related.”

And then, Danielle recalled her dentist appointment. “When they looked in my mouth, they were like, ‘It's definitely not a burn.’

Danielle was referred to an Ear Nose and Throat physician. She underwent a biopsy and was diagnosed with tongue cancer. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, more than 58,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer, which includes tongue cancer, in 2024.

Danielle  said she was in shock when she received her initial cancer diagnosis and surgery recommendation.

“I believe the phrase was ‘It's older white men who get this cancer who utilize chewing tobacco or nicotine in some capacity.’ So  it was just a really odd and an anomaly and it's, I think, a little harder to grasp when you're not in that demographic,” Danielle recalled.

“The first provider I saw wanted to take half my tongue and that's what scared me,” Danielle said.

Seeking a second opinion led her to the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center and into the care of Head and Neck Oncologist Dr. Alice Tang.

“It's a tremendous privilege,” Dr. Tang said, to be able to provide a second opinion for patients.

“I remember meeting her because she is otherwise healthy and young,” Dr. Tang said, recalling her first time meeting Danielle, calling her case a “surprise diagnosis” because of her age and otherwise healthy write-up.

When it comes to understanding the toll of tongue cancer, Dr. Tang said “If you have ever  had an ulcer, you may know that ulcers can be super painful. Now imagine if you have a large ulcer like a cancer, it is one of the more painful cancers that you can have and experience in life.”

Dr. Tang recommended Danielle needed surgery but only to  remove the cancerous part which allowed her to keep most of her tongue. Danielle praised Dr. Tang’s professional actions for creating a plan of action so quickly that Danielle didn’t need cancer treatment options like chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

“I always felt like I was in good hands,” Danielle said of the care she received with Dr. Tang and her team at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center. “There was someone on staff who specialized in survivorship and they're always emailing me about support groups and things that you can do for your mental health because it is a hard thing to get through.It's traumatic.”

“You've always been one of the more resilient people I've ever met because I knew you had kids at home, and I knew you're going through this really tough thing,” Dr. Tang told Danielle during their joint interview and reconnection. “We took care of you as a person, not just as a tongue.”

Danielle received this encouragement from Dr. Tang and tearfully replied, “You saved my life.”


Dr. Tang discussed the healthcare industry is seeing an increase in head and neck cancer incidents.

“Unfortunately, head and neck cancer has overtaken the incidence of cervical cancer,” Dr. Tang said. “So the important thing is to realize that there are ways to prevent head and neck cancer, which in particular HPV mediated or HPV human papillomavirus, oropharyngeal cancer. There are vaccines for this. So the FDA recently approved vaccination for adults up to age 45,” Dr. Tang said. “And so we encourage people to go ahead and get that vaccine.. The fact is this could prevent the more virulent strains that cause head and neck cancer.”

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

“One of the symptoms that can first present includes pain in the mouth,” Dr. Tang explained. “So an ulcer or part of your mouth that hurts and it doesn't seem to heal within a couple of weeks. And if it persists, we should really seek care for it.”

Dr. Tang also mentioned symptoms of head and neck cancer could also be ongoing ear pain, changes in one’s voice and lumps and bumps on your neck.

“A lot of times it could just be a swollen lymph node from a cold or a virus. However, if it doesn't go away on its own, then that is something that we really need to look into further,” Dr. Tang said.

Danielle said because of her own cancer journey, she continues to play a role in her own continued care.

“I'm always checking my tongue like it ought to sound like weird, but I'm always looking in the mirror, looking for any sort of white patches or burn indicators. And then, of course, just like people check themselves or breast cancer, I'm always checking my neck and everything for lumps,” Danielle said.

Danielle's Story: Surviving Tongue Cancer after a Lifesaving Second Opinion

Screenings, Advocacy and Academic Medicine

Both Danielle and Dr. Tang encourage people to stay up to date on their dental visits because dentists  do perform regular screenings to look for possible tongue and other oral cancers.


“Screening is extremely important. Obviously, it saved her life,” Dr. Tang said.


“I think screening and education is so important, but also listening to your gut and knowing that you have rights as a patient,” Danielle said.

“Head and neck cancer can affect anyone, and it can be really difficult to understand because it's a hidden type of cancer. Occasionally it's in your mouth or it can come as a neck mass and no one knows what's going on. So it is a common enough cancer that you'll know eventually someone who has head and neck cancer and it provides a very specific expertise to treat head and neck cancer. An academic center is usually a place where you want to get your treatment for these types of cancers,” Dr. Tang said in praise of the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center.

Danielle is preparing to celebrate her five-year anniversary after being diagnosed. She said she and her team are closely monitoring her case.

“I'm very appreciative of Danielle because she always has shown us that she is alive and well and thriving,” Dr. Tang said. “And for trusting us to take care of her because it's a lot to ask for us to take you through that. And I know it can be very, very scary. And part of my job is just to make things less scary for my patients.”

“And she did,” UC Heath’s Meredith Stutz replied while conducting the interview.

“She sure did,” Danielle said wiping away tears of gratitude.