Denise Matteo didn’t think twice about the broken tooth that caused her to see her dentist. “He looked at it and recommended $13,000 worth of dental work,” she said. “I was a single parent of two children and couldn’t afford it.”
It wasn’t until a second tooth broke three months later that she thought something might be wrong. “I felt some pain and my mouth started to bleed. My boss took one look at me and sent me to see her dentist.”
The new dentist examined Matteo, then told her she needed to see an oral surgeon immediately. The oral surgeon took X-rays and performed a biopsy. But even before the biopsy results came back, he informed Matteo that she had cancer.
“He showed me the X-rays. The left side of my face was normal. The right side looked like a black hole,” she said. “When the biopsy was completed, he gave me the really bad news. I had stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma, and we needed to act fast.”
Matteo had never been sick, never smoked. She felt healthy. “I was in complete shock. I didn’t know how to react.”
Fortunately, the oral surgeon was a former colleague of Rui Fernandes, MD, DMD, at UF Health Jacksonville. “He told me he wanted me to go see one of the very best oral and maxillofacial surgeons in the country. That was Dr. Fernandes. He called and made the appointment for me.”
Even though she lived in Stuart, Florida, Denise made the four-hour drive three days later to meet with Fernandes, chief of head and neck surgery at UF Health Jacksonville and associate professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville.
Matteo went through eight hours of tests, then met with him again for her diagnosis and treatment options. “He confirmed the original diagnosis of stage 4 cancer. Then showed me the images of the tumor. It was bigger than a baseball,” she said. “Basically, I had two choices. Neither one held out much promise for a long-term cure.”
Fernandes advised Matteo that she could choose to do nothing — go home, spend time with the kids and get her affairs in order. “If I did that, I’d be dead in three months,” she said.
Option number two gave her some hope. “He said we could try surgery and follow up with chemo and radiation. In that case, I had a five to 10 percent chance of living five years or more.”
Matteo was a single mother of two children. Her daughter was a freshman in college and her son was a high school sophomore. “Giving up just wasn’t something I could do. What were my kids going to do if I died? I decided right then that I was going to win. That was my mindset. I’m going to win.”
Matteo gave Fernandes her answer almost immediately. “Let’s go for it. Let’s do the surgery. I will not let cancer win,” Matteo said. “That turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made. I owe my life to Dr. Fernandes. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Dr. Fernandes presented my case to UF Health Jacksonville’s tumor board,” she said. “Then I talked to them. They all agreed with his diagnosis and course of treatment.” Matteo was scheduled for surgery two weeks later.
“Denise presented with a very advanced cancer in her upper jaw, which extended up to her eye, but thankfully had not invaded the fat or muscles surrounding the eye,” Fernandes explained. “After discussing with her, and approval from the multidisciplinary tumor board, we proceeded with the surgery. This was extensive and required immediate reconstruction with a transplant from her leg bone, skin and muscle in order to maintain her facial symmetry.”
The surgery lasted for 14 hours and Matteo was put into a medically induced coma for five days.
“When I woke up, I thought it was still the day of the operation,” she said. “What a surprise it was to realize I’d been unconscious for five days.”
Matteo stayed at UF Health Jacksonville for 10 days before she was released to go home. “The entire staff at UF Health is remarkable,” she said. “While I was recovering, Dr. Fernandes or one of the other doctors checked on me every hour. I know all the nurses and staff by first name now. They’re like my extended family.”
Since her first operation, Matteo has had some ups and downs. “I chose to have my radiation and chemo at a hospital near my home in Stuart instead of at UF Health Jacksonville. That was a big mistake.”
She went through twelve weeks of chemo and radiation. She got a staph infection and, when her insurance was cancelled, treatment was stopped until she could get other coverage.
“That didn’t stop Dr. Fernandes. He still kept seeing me even though he knew my insurance had lapsed.”
Because of complications brought about by the chemo and radiation treatments performed at the other hospital, Matteo has had to undergo more surgeries. “When I left UF Health after the first surgery, my face looked normal. The chemo and radiation treatments and staff infection I got from the other hospital caused my face to deteriorate.”
All of the surgeries performed by Fernandes since then have been aimed at correcting the damage and restoring her face to its normal appearance.
“Even though she has had a long course that was complicated by some problems from the radiation, today she is disease-free and living a wonderful life with her family and friends. I am truly honored to have been a part of her treatment team,” Fernandes said.
“It hasn’t been easy, but here I am years later and I am cancer-free,” Matteo said. “We beat it. I’m here. We have beaten this deadly disease. And it’s all because of Dr. Fernandes."
Rui P. Fernandes, MD, DMD, FACS, FRCS
Associate Chair, Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery; Chief, Division of Head and Neck Surgery; Program Director, Head and Neck Oncologic Surgery and Microvascular Fellowship; Director, UF Center for Reconstructive Surgery; Co-Director, UF Health Skull Base Team