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Tonsil Cancer Patient Has Full Recovery

CancerWise - June 2008


By Deborah Aranda

Earl Wright with wife, Kim, and daughter, Jessie

It should have been like any other birthday, filled with cake and balloons. Instead, Earle Wright received news on Sept. 9, 2005, that would change his life forever: a diagnosis of cancer.

Wright, now 55 years old, has spent the last three years cancer-free. But his road to success has not been an easy one.

A native of Louisiana, Wright knew something was wrong when he felt a painful lump on the left side of his neck. This led him to his doctor in Baton Rouge, where he and his family live. With prescribed medication, the pain went away, but the lump never did.

His ear, nose and throat specialist had a biopsy done on the lump. Several weeks later, after Hurricane Katrina, his doctor sent him and his wife, Kim, a letter requesting they visit his office. "Once you hear cancer, you don't hear anything else," Kim Wright says.

The journey away from home

Doctors weren't certain where the cancer originated, which led Wright and his wife of 27 years to search for more answers.

Their first visit was to Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Baton Rouge, where doctors found cancer on his left tonsil and underneath his jaw. A close friend recommended he see a specialist at M. D. Anderson before the cancer could reach his teeth.

The risk factors often associated with cancer are drinking and smoking. Wright drinks but does not smoke. "When they found out about my diagnosis, the first question was 'How much do you smoke?' but I never smoked," he says.

At M. D. Anderson, he saw Ann Gillenwater, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery.

"His pathology report suggested his cancer was probably caused by the human papillomavirus, a lesser-known cause of tonsil cancer that seems to be on the increase," Gillenwater says.

"From the moment we walked in, we never got the feeling of hopelessness," Kim Wright says. "It made a big impression."

There was never a doubt in their minds that they would persevere with the help of M. D. Anderson's medical professionals. "When I went to M. D. Anderson, they were specifically in tune with head and neck cancer. I just trusted the doctors," he says.

Treatment at M. D. Anderson

For Kim, hospitality at M. D. Anderson went beyond her expectations.

"The quality M. D. Anderson provides was not in question. They give you a support system. The learning curve was vertical, and they treated us like family," she says.

Having left their daughters in Baton Rouge, this was the type of atmosphere the couple could take comfort in. It was then explained to Wright that he could undergo a treatment plan created and monitored by M. D. Anderson specialists but actually receive treatment closer to home.

Wright chose treatment through Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center. There, he underwent 15- to 20-minute radiation treatments, five days a week for about 15 weeks. He also had three chemotherapy sessions, each lasting about six hours.

Treatment was just one aspect of the battle, but Wright always felt he would survive it. "It's just something that happened; I didn't feel like a victim. It's like you're walking down the road, and you've just got to put one foot in front of the other and keep going," he says.

The path to battling cancer was not an easy one for his wife, either. "Cancer affects everyone in the family, not just one," she says.

As a caregiver, she was at Wright's side every step of the way. "It was rough. I'd get mad and angry, but I had to learn how to let go and let people help."

Winning the battle

Before the couple met, Wright served a four-year tour in the Navy then became a student worker for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries while attending Louisiana State University.

It was there that he became interested in learning how to understand and repair the hydrological instruments that were in use then. This experience is what eventually led him to become involved in ambient air instrumentation in 1980.

About the time, Wright met his wife at LSU. They've been inseparable ever since. They have two daughters, Sarah, 25, and Jessie, 11, who have been supportive throughout their father's battle with cancer.

Today, Wright is healthy and only visits M. D. Anderson for annual checkups.

Fighting cancer has given him a different perspective and brought him closer to his family. He says he has been successful at beating cancer through the support of friends and family.

The couple has had their share of obstacles over the years, yet still manages to keep an optimistic attitude.

"If you don't have the right frame of mind, then you're not going to make it," Kim Wright says. "You have to look and see that there's something at the other end of this."

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center