Steve Braun, the owner of Fair Ground Coffee Shop at 5901 W. Vliet St. in Milwaukee, was only 20 years old when he was diagnosed with tongue cancer.
The majority of people infected with oral cancer are over the age of 45. The survival rate for this type of cancer has been around 50 percent since 1960.
Most people who get the disease have smoked or used chewing tobacco for years. However, Braun said he only smoked “a little” in high school, “definitely not enough to do any damage,” he said.
Braun has survived the disease. He graduated from Marquette University and now runs his coffee shop. The shop is a spinoff of his mother’s bakery business, Most Fantastic Foods, also located in Milwaukee. “The coffee shop is in a nice neighborhood and is actually a great outlet for our cookies,” said Braun.
However, the effects of his battle with cancer still linger.
In December 2003, Braun was a sophomore majoring in business at Marquette University. He went home to visit his parents in Hartland for a weekend and noticed a canker sore- like abrasion on the left side of his tongue. After seeing a general practitioner who couldn’t diagnose the sore, Braun underwent a biopsy at Waukesha Memorial Hospital and discovered it was cancer.
Dr. Bruce Campbell, interim director at the Froedtert Hospital Cancer Center and head and neck cancer specialist from the Medical College of Wisconsin, first met Braun on Jan. 15, 2004.
“From a personal perspective, Steve is about a week younger then my oldest son,” said Campbell. “Since I began my practice I have seen that most people that have cancer of the oral cavity tend to be age 50 or 60, so around the age of my parents … Then here comes this guy who is the age of my son, and it tugged at me in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.”
For Braun’s type of cancer, according to Campbell, the best treatment is surgery. On Jan. 30, 2004, Braun had surgery to remove one-third of the left side of his tongue and the lymph nodes on the left side of his neck.
“I thought it was something we would be able to take out pretty well, knowing that he would have trouble talking for awhile afterward but ultimately hoping to get the treatment done without the need for radiation,” Campbell said.
Radiation generally has some long-term effects on patients and, if possible, Campbell and the other physicians at Froedtert and the Medical College wanted to avoid putting Braun at risk.
Braun returned to Marquette about a week after his surgery. He was still unable to talk clearly, and a large pink scar lined the left side of his neck just under his chin.
“I was pretty much normal after about a month,” he said. “I couldn’t eat the same way, but I still only eat on the right side of my mouth, so I guess that’s a permanent thing.”
Braun graduated from Marquette in May 2006 with no sign of the cancer. He was faithful about coming to his routine visits following the surgery, said Campbell.
In September of 2006, Braun went in for an unscheduled visit because he was having trouble sleeping and had a visible lump on his neck. His general doctor had diagnosed it as an infection and prescribed some antibiotics. A week later Braun returned to see Campbell.
“(The cancer) was stuck high in the neck, and the back part of the tongue this time,” Campbell said. “It was big, and I got to tell you, I was scared, sometimes these are hard to treat and hard to get at.”
For the recurrence Braun underwent six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
“Technology allowed us to use a high intensity radiation and direct it right where the tumor was,” said Campbell.
Braun lost about 30 pounds and was hospitalized for about three weeks during his radiation treatment.
As a patient, Braun will have more checkups, and he says the new Froedtert and the Medical College Clinical Cancer Center in Wauwatosa will be a major upgrade.
“I can definitely see how patients would feel more comfortable,” he said. “I could walk around but if you were in a wheelchair and had to go from floor to floor to see your doctors that would be difficult.”
He also mentioned that the underground parking directly adjacent to elevators that could access the cancer center will be an added bonus. Braun received his treatment in the original Froedtert hospital building.
Campbell, who will eventually serve as a specialist in the Cancer Center’s Hope Clinic, said he likes the new hub design in the center in which doctors come to the patients, instead of vice-versa.
“It will just be easier for the patients,” he said. “With these types of cancers I see a lot of my patients once a year for a lifetime as a trouble shooting mechanism. After all, the treatment is one thing but the side effects are forever, this cancer center will definitely make it easier on them.”