It all began during the summer/fall of 2016 with a sore throat that wouldn’t go away. I was also having some pain when swallowing. Over the course of 7-8 months the pain slowly got worse, and when I went into Tucson Medical Center for my annual physical in February of 2017 I mentioned it to my primary physician.
The doctor tried looking down my throat to see what could be causing the pain but was unable to see far enough with her instruments. She referred me to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist and I was able to see him in early March. He was also unable to see the area clearly and sent me for a CT scan on March 15th. The results of the scan showed a lesion in the area, and the doctor immediately ordered surgery for a biopsy on March 27th.
On March 28th he confirmed I had cancer, a small squamous cell carcinoma way back on the base of my tongue on the right side. It had apparently not reached the lymph nodes yet, so it was considered stage-1 cancer. He also found that the cancer was caused by the Human papillomavirus (HPV). Most people have this virus in their body, but it only comes out as cancer in relatively few cases (although doctors are seeing a large increase in cases and are calling it an epidemic now).
A short time later the doctor referred me to the ENT surgical team at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, a large and well-respected center. Since we were in Tucson at the time, we cancelled all of our future travel plans and moved Betsy closer to the hospital in preparation for the many trips I would be making there.
The reason for the referral was that I was a good candidate for a “minimally-invasive” procedure called Transoral Robotic Surgery, where a complex robotic system is aimed down the throat with multiple attachments for clamping, cutting and suturing procedures (more information and an image here). This procedure avoids large invasive cuts and other methods traditionally used for cancer surgeries in the throat area. The surgery was performed on April 20th.
During the operation, the doctor also performed a modified radical neck dissection. It involved making a large incision on my neck and removing approximately 2 dozen lymph modes for pathological examination. The examination confirmed that the cancer had not yet spread to the nodes, very good news.
As you might imagine, recovery from this major surgery was very difficult. I lost almost 20 pounds over the next 2 weeks as I went from not being able to eat anything to barely being able to swallow broth. By the 6th week after surgery I was able to eat a lot of solid foods again.
Then the next whammy – radiation treatments. Although the cancer can sometimes be completely removed surgically in cases like mine, it was determined that some microscopic cancer cells remained and I would have to undergo radiation. Seven weeks and 33 treatments later I was done. By then I was having so many pains and problems swallowing that I won’t even detail them here. I’ll just say it was a really tough time.
As I write this it’s been 10 weeks since my last radiation treatment. I’m still about 15 pounds under weight and trying hard to gain it back by eating everything I can get down. Swallowing remains difficult and painful, but most of the major swelling is gone and I’m hopeful things will continue to improve. I’m taking many medications for pain and blood flow issues, and will remain on them for several months. We’ll see what the future holds for me as I return every few months to the doctor for follow-ups.