When Angelique Muniz walks into a gym, with her Wonder Woman workout costume providing inspiration and her pink-dyed hair providing just the right amount of attitude, she is difficult to miss. As you watch her jump rope — fast, with complex footwork — you can see that she has good reflexes. Later, with her hands wrapped and throwing quick combinations of punches at a body bag, you realize she also had some serious training. In fact, Muniz, now 31, boxed in college, and since then she has kept physically active at a local gym, mixing cardio kickboxing with Zumba and yoga classes.
But Muniz fought the fight of her life two years ago, when an irritation in her throat, initially misdiagnosed as an infection treatable with antibiotics, turned out to be stage 3 oral cancer. When she was referred to Jason Leibowitz, M.D., a head and neck surgeon at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, he told her that her aggressive cancer would require an aggressive response: the removal and reconstruction of half of her tongue, followed by radiation and extensive therapy.
“Any time there is an ulcer or a mass growing on the tongue, or someone has a lump growing on the neck, these are very concerning signs,” said Leibowitz. “The first time I saw Angie, she really thought she was going to die, or that she would never speak again or eat again.”
Initially, Muniz was terrified by what lay ahead, but found comfort in Leibowitz’s confidence.
“He was wonderful,” she said. “He told me that the procedure was more common than I realized, that an entire team of Sylvester specialists would be with me every step of the way, and that I would return to a normal life. I held on to those words throughout the next few months.”
For Muniz, the teamwork began during a 12-hour surgery that Leibowitz says has almost become routine.
“We are now doing 150 or 160 of these tissue-transplant cases a year, and we have really good outcomes,” he said.
As Leibowitz removed Muniz’s tumor, Donald T. Weed, M.D., co-leader of Sylvester’s Head and Neck Site Disease Group, prepared the tissue that would be transplanted to replace the portion of the tongue she would lose.
“I used skin and blood vessels from her wrist to rebuild her tongue and a skin graft from her thigh to replace the tissue I had taken from her wrist,” Weed explained.
To make the extensive procedure possible, Muniz’s neck was cut from side to side, and 73 lymph nodes removed. Fortunately, the cancer had spread to only one of them.
But the surgery was only the beginning. In the weeks and months that followed, she would endure a breathing tube down her throat and a feeding tube in her stomach, skin grafts, radiation treatments, physical therapy, and speech therapy to learn to talk again. Each of these steps to recovery involved another specialist from the dedicated care team she had been promised.
“I can’t say enough about the care I received at Sylvester,” she said. “The doctors, the nurses, the technicians, the therapists — everyone I came in contact with — made me stronger and more determined to get my life back.”
An important part of her recovery involved regaining her stamina. Muniz was referred to a special Sylvester program, U Survive & Thrive, which pairs cancer patients who have completed treatment with specially trained exercise physiologists at the UHealth Fitness and Wellness Center on the medical campus.
“Working with the weight machines under supervision really helped,” said Muniz. “By the end of the program, I had doubled my strength.”
Her large support team extended beyond Sylvester into all areas of her life. Her entire family came to her first appointment with Leibowitz. Her long-time boyfriend popped the question, and they were married on the day before her radiation treatments began. And in what is a surprise to many, given the nature of her surgery, with the help of speech and vocal therapy she is back singing in the choir at Christ the Rock Community Church in Cooper City.
“I have received tremendous support from my congregation,” said Muniz. “I love to sing happy, uplifting songs, and now I sing to give thanks to God for my life. It’s funny — I was never religious until all this happened to me, but as they say, God will find you when you’re ready.”