Aliyah’s Voice: 25-year-old who battled oral and lung cancer will be honored with fund
When I heard the news, it felt as if a beloved niece had died.
Last spring, I sat in the garden of the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center and interviewed Aliyah Howard for a story that ran in the April 16 edition of Your Health.
The 25-year-old, who was wrapping up her master’s degree in speech pathology at South Carolina State University, had endured a year of battling stage 4 oral cancer that included having her tongue removed.
As I mentioned in the first paragraph of the story, Aliyah demonstrated a rare combination of “maturity, strength and grace in youth, forged from adversity.” And she was strikingly beautiful, inside and out.
Aliyah looked forward to a career of helping others, particularly those who faced the same challenges as she had. She and medical staff at MUSC said she would offer a unique perspective for patients. She was going to use her experience to make lives better.
“This (oral cancer) was meant to happen to me, so that I can help my patients in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to beforehand,” said Aliyah, in an interview April 9. “It’s one thing to have empathy and sympathy for someone, but unless it happens to you, it’s a big eye opener.”
“But I won’t lie to you either. It also has not been easy. I cannot feel sorry for myself every day because then I’ll just become a pitiful person. I have to keep moving the best that I can.”
Two weeks after the story ran, her cancer re-appeared, this time in her lungs and kidneys.
The next two months brutalized her, her family and friends. Aliyah endured two chemotherapy treatments, pain, wheezing, coughing, and blood clots. And yet, they said she handled it with same grace as before. Her mother and brother’s girlfriend say she was at peace with her ultimate fate.
She died July 8, about two months after receiving her master’s degree.
Pain lives on
Her mother, Tunisiann Howard of Columbia, is among those still suffering from the loss.
“It haunts me — I can’t sleep — that something couldn’t have been done,” says Ms. Howard. “It’s tearing me apart.”
She adds that her daughter’s valiant fight over oral cancer is now “overshadowed by the vengeance of the last two months” before Aliyah’s death.
The Howards also are asking for records from MUSC about the possibility of the spot being detected on Aliyah’s lungs on an image taken in January. Tunisiann says that neither Aliyah nor the family were told of the spot. They have yet to get the information.
“I know I have to let her go,” says the 51-year-old Tunisiann, “but it’s the hardest thing that I’ll probably have to do in my life.”
Honoring her memory
Staff members at MUSC’s Head and Neck Tumor Center, where Aliyah did her clinical work, were so impressed with Aliyah and were equally devastated by news of her death.
They started a fund, Aliyah’s Voice, that will provide assistance to head and neck cancer patients experiencing speech and swallowing problems. The fund will be under the direction of the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance.
That memorial fund will be only part of Aliyah’s legacy. She will live on in the hearts of many who had the privilege of knowing her.
Dr. Terry Day, director of MUSC’s division of head and neck oncologic surgery, says that Aliyah was “true inspiration to me.”
“I feel honored to have experienced a part of her life along with seeing what a special relationship that she had with her family,” says Day. “Sometimes I don’t understand why cancer affects certain people, but I must say that for such a young, healthy and undeserving (of cancer) person, Aliyah displayed extraordinary courage and an unselfish attitude that I will always remember.”
In the April 16 article, Day noted that Howard was among the 15 percent of the population with head, neck and oral cancer with no known cause or risk factor.
Howard was not a smoker, a major risk factor for head and neck cancers. She tested negative for the human papilloma virus, or HPV, a rising risk factor for young people. And she did not have a family history.
MUSC speech therapist Julie Blair went to Aliyah’s graduation, which was bittersweet for all involved.
“I wanted to be there for her, to let her know how proud I was of her accomplishment but it was also very difficult to know that her disease had returned and she may not have the opportunity to put into practice all that she had learned,” says Blair.
“She had made such an incredible impact on the patients whose care she participated in and on the students that heard her speak during awareness talks. Although her speech was not always clear, her message was: She had cancer but she was not going to let it take her hope or her spirit or her voice.
“And now through ‘Aliyah’s Voice’ her message can still be heard and her goal to help others communicate is not lost.”
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.