Jim Brewer II has led an eventful life. He is married with five children. He got his first job as a radio announcer at age 16 and is now the president of Brewer Broadcasting, which owns multiple radio stations, websites and The Pulse. He has served on numerous boards, won numerous awards and been recognized for his philanthropic efforts.
But it's his decadelong battle with cancer—and, more specifically, his candor and optimism in dealing with it—that might just be his biggest accomplishment.
It all started in December 2003. Brewer had a sore on his tongue that wouldn’t heal, so he went to get it checked out. A biopsy revealed that the growth was cancerous, so doctors conducted a partial glossectomy to remove the front right tip. The cancer had also spread to his lymph nodes, requiring doctors to remove those, as well. The surgery was followed by 37 radiation treatments. Brewer lost 48 pounds during the surgery and recovery period, and it would be 18 months before he was able to gain back most of the weight. The radiation also caused Brewer's thyroid to stop functioning, requiring medication to control it.
Brewer seemed to be out of the woods when, in August 2008, he experienced swelling in his tongue. This time, a large tumor was found, so Brewer flew to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where doctors removed slightly more than half of his tongue, replacing it with tissue from his left forearm. More radiation was needed because of some cell clusters at the base of his tongue, so Brewer stayed in Houston to receive 30 more radiation treatments and weekly chemotherapy. He returned to Chattanooga in January 2009.
"When I got cancer in 2004, it was a total surprise and scare," Brewer said. "When it returned in 2008, I started thinking that it would never go away."
Eight months later, Brewer had to have a necrotic mass removed from the floor of his mouth. There was more radiation, and the healing process was slow. Brewer underwent 30 hyperbaric oxygen treatments, which were successful in healing the radiated area. But the extensive amount of radiation he'd received caused both his left and right carotid arteries to shrink, so in spring 2011, those had to be removed, as well.
More than a year went by, and again, Brewer thought the worst was over. But last November, he began experiencing soreness in his jaw. He also noticed that some of his lower teeth were loose. He flew back to Houston, where doctors diagnosed him with severe osteoradionecrosis, a complication of radiation therapy that can result in bone death. The diagnosis meant that Brewer's lower jaw would have to be replaced.
In January of this year, doctors used a computer-generated model of Brewer's jaw to create a titanium plate, which they paired with 24 centimeters of fibula and tissue from Brewer's right leg to perform a fibula flap jaw reconstruction. He was in surgery for 10 hours.
"The surgery went very well," Brewer said. "Oddly enough, my leg has been more sore than my jaw. When they take the fibula out, they don’t replace it with anything, so it was like breaking my leg in two places and just letting it heal with no replacement. It sounds a bit crazy, but it worked."
Brewer said his wife, Sandra, has been "a real trooper" through his whole ordeal, and he credits his family with helping make major surgery feel routine.
"This last surgery wasn’t as crazy," he said. "We were familiar with Houston from all the visits, and it worked out well. My son James flew down with me, and Sandra and my parents were there for the surgery and recovery. Then, my daughter Carly came, and my daughter Danielle spent the last week and the trip back with me."
Brewer is unsure of his long-term prognosis but is both appreciative and optimistic.
"My joints are sore, but I’m maintaining weight and starting to move a little better," he said. "I was very lucky. I get around just like normal."
Although Brewer remains upbeat, he has had to make a few adjustments. He can't open his mouth as wide as he used to, and he is currently missing all of his bottom teeth, which means that all of his meals have to be prepared with the aid of a high-powered blender.
"I can throw in a steak, asparagus and a baked potato with butter, sour cream and béarnaise sauce—and a little broth if I need to—and I’m good to go," he said. "I can taste all of the flavors. I just can't eat spicy food. It irritates the radiated areas. And I can't have carbonated beverages. They burn."
As of the time of this writing, Brewer was en route back to Houston for follow-up tests. Doctors are hopeful that he'll be able to receive dental implants this fall after his jaw has had time to heal.
With all he's endured, Brewer is grateful. He turned 53 a few days ago and remains driven and focused—especially regarding the people closest to him.
"Cancer has certainly realigned my priorities in life," he said. "I don’t take things for granted as much as I used to, and it’s strengthened my relationships with my friends and family."
Brewer jokes that he's also become "a bit of an informational junkie on oral cancer" and stresses the importance of early detection.
"If you notice a sore on your lip, tongue or gums, be sure to have it checked out," he said. "Nearly all cases of oral cancer are first diagnosed from a dentist during a routine cleaning or checkup. The sooner you get it checked out, the better off you’ll be. It's like any type of cancer. Early detection is so critical. I can't emphasize that enough."
The Oral Cancer Foundation will be holding a walk/run for awareness April 26 at First Tennessee Pavilion. The event will feature guest speakers, 8K and 5K races, a fun run, live music, silent auction, raffle, bake sale, face painting, food and more. Click here for more information.
Bill Colrus writes about (in no particular order) news, culture and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.