Lecompton Melissa Wingert is one of the tougher people you will ever meet.
She's had to be.
One week after Thanksgiving, following what was supposed to have been a routine dental procedure to correct pain in her gums, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma bone cancer in her face.
A day later, while cuddling with her husband in bed, the couple discovered a strange lump under her right breast. Alarmed, they called her doctors.
A couple of days, after a tissue biopsy, Melissa was diagnosed with breast cancer, a type of tumor different than the cancer invading her cheekbone, eye socket and sinus cavity.
"I was mad," Melissa, 28, recalled during a recent interview in her Lecompton home. "I think I yelled at my doctor. My thought was, 'Get this (cancer) out of me.'"
Kent Wingert, 28, a plumber and pipe fitter for Huxtable & Associates in Lawrence, remembers the anger his wife of eight years was feeling at the time of the diagnoses. The couple has two children, Blake, 6, and Colton, 3.
"She thought this was going to obstruct her from getting on with her life. She couldn't stand the thought of someone else taking care of the kids, or not being able to see them grow up. She was mad because she thought that was it, she was done," he said.
Since her illness was discovered, Melissa has undergone surgery to remove the cancer from her facial bones, a procedure that cost her part of the upper palate of her mouth, six teeth, her right cheekbone and the lower portion of her right eye socket.
The surgery she had that day, Dec. 5, also included a lumpectomy under her right breast and the removal of seven lymph nodes.
She has endured round after round of chemotherapy, weeks at a time in hospitals and three blood transfusions after her red and white blood cell counts collapsed.
In early May, Melissa had a double mastectomy to ensure that any cancerous tissue was removed along with the chance that more cancer could ever show up in her breasts.
Having the double mastectomy was a difficult decision. But she didn't want to face the possibility of having to go through a mastectomy twice, if the cancer were to spread to her left breast.
After Melissa heals from the recent surgery and undergoes another round of chemotherapy, she plans to have breast reconstruction.
"We just said (to her doctors), 'Get rid of them.' Kent gets to pick the new ones, and that makes him happy," she said, laughing.
Overcoming her fears
Melissa, who is on leave from her job at TherapyWorks, 1112 W. Sixth St., where she does insurance billing, doesn't hold back when talking about her medical situation.
She shares copies of her surgeon's graphic, color photos of the cancer, tissue and bone he removed from her face. She takes out the prosthetic plate in her mouth, tips back her head and reveals the deep, pink cavity where part of her hard palate and cheekbone used to be.
She hesitates only a moment, saying, "Oh, it doesn't matter," before she lifts her T-shirt to show the results of her double mastectomy.
Melissa jokes that she now feels like she has the body of an 11-year-old boy, that she can mow the front yard without wearing a top.
That's vintage Melissa she's always had a sense of humor, say people who know her.
But having cancer has made her braver.
"This is a girl who couldn't even take her kids to get shots. But to say, 'Cut out this bone, I don't need it,' 'Cut out my breasts, I don't need them' ... I'm just real proud of her," said Pat Dalton, her mother, who lives near Stull.
Melissa's medical case has been unusual, posing special challenges to her doctors. It's very rare for a patient to have osteosarcoma in the facial area, and rarer still for someone to receive diagnoses of two different kinds of tumors within just a few days.
"Dealing with tumors of the head and neck, that's one of our areas of specialty," said Dr. Robert Dinsdale, a Lawrence otolaryngologist (commonly called an ENT for ear, nose and throat) who performed Melissa's facial reconstructive surgery. "These tumors are rare enough that there's not any one person who has treated more than a few osteosarcomas of the cheek."
His job was to remove the cancer and rebuild that part of her face. It was a difficult surgery, lasting about six hours.
"You must do enough to get the cancer out, but you're operating next to the eye. So you're trying to preserve sight, you're trying to preserve as much of the (mouth's) palate as you can because that's going to affect speaking and eating. You want to do all that, and make sure that she's still presentable and beautiful, which she is," Dinsdale said.
He used fascia the fibrous covering over muscle tissue from Melissa's hip to rebuild the lower part of her eye socket. He stretched the tissue like a canvas between the cut edges of the bone, and stitched it in place. That's the new floor of her right eye socket.
"Functionally, she's doing just super. Aesthetically, she's doing great. You have to look very closely to even know she's had an operation. From the standpoint of her cheekbone cancer, I'm very optimistic that she'll stay clear," Dinsdale said.
Nothing to mourn
Like the members of Melissa's family, Dinsdale is impressed by his patient.
"She is an amazing woman. She's kept her sense of humor through all this, and she just has an incredibly strong will. Melissa is appropriately angry (at the illness), and she's directed that anger toward getting better," he said.
Dalton has seen flashes of her daughter's feisty determination to beat the cancer, and views it as an encouraging sign.
"If there's anyone who can hold a grudge, it's this girl right here," she said, laughing.
When asked if she's been through hell the past six months, Melissa answers, simply, yes.
But she's walking out the other side of the ordeal now, with her head held high.
"I don't have a will. I never thought to go write one. I'm not done (living)," she said, matter of factly.
"There's nothing to mourn about I'm not dead.