Head and neck cancer survivor gives back to Hollings to help future patients

November 21, 2023
cancer survivor and MUSC instructor Michelle Brown Nelson
After undergoing treatment for a rare salivary gland cancer, Michelle Brown-Nelson, DHA, wanted to find a way to give back. Photo by Clif Rhodes

When the students and faculty at Miller-Motte College voted Michelle Brown-Nelson, DHA, as Employee of the Month, she knew exactly what to do with the $500 check that came with the honor.

She wanted to donate it to head and neck cancer research at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, where she was finishing up treatment for salivary gland cancer.

“Where else would I want those donated funds to go but Hollings Cancer Center?” she said. “Because I see how valuable those resources are, and research is very important.

“And with my connection with MUSC, there wouldn't be anywhere else that I would want my funds to go because it could help someone else. Certainly, research dollars have helped with my course of treatment, and so I just want to be able to give back in order to play some small part in helping advance research for someone else,” she explained.

Brown-Nelson's connection to MUSC is manifold – she has been a student, instructor and patient. She earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the MUSC College of Health Professions, and she teaches courses in the college’s cardiovascular perfusion program, including continuous quality improvement and health information systems, and in the Master of Health Administration program, including the language of medicine and health care management.

At Miller-Motte, she teaches in the medical assistant and business management programs. She hasn’t been teaching in person this past semester, however, as she’s gone through treatment.

"Certainly, research dollars have helped with my course of treatment, and so I just want to be able to give back in order to play some small part in helping advance research for someone else."

Michelle Brown-Nelson, DHA

Brown-Nelson first felt something unusual on her neck – a hard lump – while rinsing off in the shower earlier this year. She then embarked on a journey of visiting her primary care doctor, dentist, endodontist and finally an ear, nose and throat doctor before a biopsy at another local hospital revealed that the lump was cancerous.

“The biopsy results said that I had metastatic carcinoma. I don't know what else that report said, but all I could see and all I could hear was, ‘metastatic, metastatic, metastatic, metastatic,’” she recalled. “That word just kept going and repeating itself over and over in my mind.”

While she was waiting to speak to a doctor, Brown-Nelson reached out to Tiffany Williams, DNP, a retired MUSC College of Nursing assistant professor and multiple myeloma survivor who attends Brown-Nelson's church.

“She held my hand from that day moving forward, and she was able to connect me with Dr. Evan Graboyes and Dr. Alexandra Kejner, who was the one who did the surgery,” Brown-Nelson said.

Brown-Nelson had surgery in August, followed by radiation treatments with Bhisham Chera, M.D., to kill any remaining cancer cells that could potentially cause the cancer to return.

Radiation therapy has not been easy, she noted.

“It's a long journey – painful journey,” she said. She experienced many of the side effects of radiation therapy, including nausea, fatigue, radiation burns to her neck and sores in her mouth that made even swallowing water painful. The side effects typically linger for several weeks after treatment ends – Brown-Nelson had her last treatment on Nov. 10, so she hopes to see the side effects taper off soon.

Nonetheless, she is grateful for the care and professionalism she experienced from all of the doctors and staff at Hollings, including from radiation oncology nurse Amy Tamblyn, R.N., and head and neck cancer nurse navigator Savannah Zimmerman, R.N.

“I could not have made it through this process without Amy’s care, concern and attentiveness to me and everything I experienced,” she explained. She added, “My mom has ‘adopted’ Savannah, so Savannah is one of our sisters now! She's been lovely throughout the entire process.”

Brown-Nelson is particularly grateful for past research that meant the doctors could care for this unusual cancer, and for that reason, she wanted to pay it forward by donating her Employee of the Month award to enable more research.

Most of all, she’s thankful for those who’ve supported her over the past six months.

“I'm just so grateful for my family because this has really been something – I just wouldn't wish this process on anyone,” she said. “It has not been easy at all by any means, but I'm just grateful for my family, my church family and my AKA sorority sisters.”