Patient Care

The artistry of cancer care

before and after photos
Nancy Robinson before (left) and after a series of hyaluronic acid injections.

Cancer patient Nancy Robinson likened her latest treatments to a passage by St. Francis of Assisi: “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

For Robinson, Washington University facial plastic surgeon Emily Spataro, MD, was that artist. Adopting a unique application of a routine filler, Spataro used repeated injections of hyaluronic acid to gradually improve tissue bulk, restoring form and function to Robinson’s lower lip.

“I never smoked,  I never drank, I never had HPV. However, cancer doesn’t discriminate – black or white, rich or poor, young or old – and I got it.”

Nancy Robinson, cancer patient
photo of Emily Spataro
Emily Spataro, MD

It has been more than 20 years since her first cancer diagnosis – squamous cell carcinoma – and her first surgery, a partial glossectomy, which removed a portion of her tongue. Since then her cancer has returned nine times and she has undergone a total of twenty surgical procedures.

Those surgeries resulted in the destruction of nerves to her lower lip and jaw. In time, that loss of innervation caused her lower lip to atrophy and recede into her mouth.

“With no feeling, I would chew on my lower lip when eating and I only knew it when I saw the blood,” she said. “With no proper lower lip, liquids would just fall out of my mouth, and I drooled constantly without knowing it.”

This latest setback caused her embarrassment, and she suffered with chronically cracked and chapped lips. But in spite of the numerous setbacks over 20 years, Robinson never lost the drive to improve her quality of life. So, she was again hopeful when head and neck Nurse Practitioner Melissa Portell recommended she see Spataro.

photo of Robinson family
Robinson cherishes time with family, creating memories that will last a lifetime, pictured here with husband Mike and their five grandchildren.

“I couldn’t wait for my visit,” she said. “I can still picture the room, the setting, and hear Dr. Spataro’s voice telling me, ‘I can help with this!’ I was over-the-moon excited, to say the least.”

According to Spataro, surgical options were complicated by poor wound healing due to radiation treatments. So, she recommended using hyaluronic acid filler to both strengthen the tissue of her lower lip, and get it to evert more, back to its natural position.

“The filler worked better than imagined,” said Spataro. It has completely restored her ability to eat and speak. She will need to come in now every couple of months for touch-ups, since the body naturally breaks down the filler over time.”

Robinson now visits Spataro on a regular basis to receive injections of filler into her bottom lip and surrounding facial areas to help support the lip. She no longer chews on it when eating, she doesn’t have to support her lip with her hand to eat or drink, and the drooling is much improved. The difference, she says, is night and day.

No stranger to artistic endeavors, Robinson opened a custom cake studio called Artistry on Cakes in 2007. Here is one happy grandson with his birthday cake.

According to Robinson, the improvement of her physical appearance has given her a sense of peace, confidence, and happiness that can’t be put into words or underestimated. She now looks forward to the future with hope, not dread. 

“I am so thankful for this opportunity to tell my story,” says Robinson. “I pray it will bring help to others as it has been a true blessing for me. Dr. Spataro is certainly a wonderful physician, and she is a wonderful artist as well.”

The Washington University Facial Plastic Surgery Center provides patients with expert reconstructive care by board-certified, fellowship-trained facial plastic surgeons. They offer reconstructive services for Mohs surgery and skin cancer, facial trauma, facial paralysis and scar revision.

If you or someone you know is thinking about reconstructive surgery, please call for a comprehensive evaluation. For more information, please visit our website or call 314-996-3880 for an appointment.