Two years ago on May 10th, I spent five hours in surgery and then the weekend in the hospital, recovering from the removal of a squamous carcinoma tumor, all the lymph nodes on the right side of my neck and my right tonsil. Recovery from surgery stretched on for five weeks, my tongue thick and bruised from where it had been clamped down during surgery, my throat burning and raw from where the tonsil had been removed.
Before my throat and neck were fully healed, a full month of radiation treatments began. A work colleague of mine, learning of what I’d be going through, correctly stated, “Today there are no good or kind treatments for cancer.” Compared to radiation treatments the surgery was nothing. 30 days of showing up for a treatment that made me feel worse and worse each day, killing my taste buds and making it painful and virtually impossible to eat anything other than liquids and ice cream. I lost close to sixty pounds during that time (about forty pounds more than I could spare to lose). Each visit to the doctor’s office brought on another discussion about how I should consider having a “permanent” feeding tube put into my stomach—and each time I resisted this idea (which is what I’d still recommend to anyone who has to make this choice. From what I understand many patients who go this route never eat normally again.) For a while the radiation treatments also stole my voice. My wife fondly refers to this time as “the month when she won all the arguments.” :-)
But this is all behind me now, past history. I’m officially two-years cancer-free. Cancer Free! That’s a big deal, and I’m happy to be here to write this. I’ve picked back up thirty pounds of weight and my taste buds have returned. As bad as the disease and the treatments of it were, I’m glad there was something that could be done to stop this terrible disease—and to reduce the likelihood that it might come back. As awful as radiation treatments were, the benefit is that they reduced my chances of a second recurrence of neck/throat cancer by about 35%. Being two years out from my diagnosis also greatly reduces the likelihood of the disease coming back. All reasons for me to celebrate.
So what else can I tell you about being a survivor of throat cancer?
I should probably tell you about HPV, the human papillomavirus. As I wasn’t a smoker, HPV is the most likely reason I got this form of cancer. From what I understand, 90% of all adults in the United States have been exposed to this virus. If you are a parent of a child ages 9 to 26, get your child vaccinated against HPV. (This vaccine didn’t exist when I was a kid, but if I’d had this vaccination, it may have prevented what I went through.) Adult males over the age of 40 are at greatest risk for neck and throat cancer. Statistics seem to vary on this, but one that sticks in my head is that this cancer is the fastest growing type of cancer for men in this age bracket, and 1 in 67 males will contract it.
Smoking: Another great way to encourage throat cancer. Don’t do it.
Health insurance: I remain thankful that my employer offers great health insurance—and that I had it when I needed it. When I finally tallied up all my bills for the time period when I was sick it was a six-figures number—almost all of which was covered by my insurance. To be uninsured at this time would have meant bankruptcy. I hear plenty of complaints about “Obamacare”—the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—but under the ACA people with cancer or a history of cancer cannot be denied health insurance coverage. Obviously as a cancer survivor I’m a fan of this idea.
After effects: I still feel the results of my cancer treatment daily, although to an outside observer I probably seem completely normal (or as normal as I get). There is always a little pain in my neck and mouth, both from the surgery and the radiation treatment. It’s usually not much, maybe a 2 on a scale of 1-10, but it’s there—and worse on days when I move wrong, sleep wrong, on the weather changes drastically. My doctor tells me this is my new normal, and is probably how it will always be. Eating/swallowing and talking are all a little more complicated for me these days. Radiation treatments have the effect of constricting/tightening all the space between tissues in the treated area—my mouth, neck and throat—meaning my “swallow” is somewhat broken, my throat a smaller space than it once was. Certain foods are harder for me to eat—for instance, I’ve given up on steak and many raw veggies just about completely—as they are more a choking hazard than nutrition (for me). I also suffer from “dry mouth”—the radiation f’d up my salivary glands, too—so that I now usually need to have a tall glass of something to drink with anything I eat to avoid choking. On the talking front, my voice had gotten a bit deeper thanks to radiation. I also don’t get a lot of volume out of my voice anymore, and yelling is just about impossible—but I think that’s OK. These side effects are all things I signed up for when I decided I wanted to take radiation treatments to prevent my cancer from coming back. Time will tell if it was all worth it—although so far it seems like it is.
My Thyroid: may it rest in peace. There was a 1 in 3 chance it would die after treatment, and it has. I now take a little pill daily (for the rest of my life) to replace what my thyroid used to do for my metabolism.
Exceptional support: I remain thankful for my support network of family, friends, work colleagues and of course my doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who helped me get through my ordeal with cancer. I was thankful for them then and am thankful now—especially for the high level of care I received when it came to my medical treatment. I remain in awe of the doctors and nurses who spend all their days helping others fight horrendous diseases like cancer.
So I think I’ve blathered on long enough in this post… mostly I’m just trying to say I’m happy and fortunate to be here, healthy and writing, but I must leave you with this final thought: Do you have a lump or bump somewhere that it shouldn’t be? Do you suspect something is wrong with your health? Then go and get checked out—NOW! (And don’t skip your routine physicals.) When it comes to cancer early diagnosis and treatment is half the battle. When I first felt a hard lump under my right jaw two years ago I’m thankful I went to see a doctor. I could have just as easily ignored it—which would have been a dreadful mistake.