October 22, 2015
My squamous cell carcinoma journey
BY Van Simmons
I didn’t think much of it when my neck got sore during a hunting trip in November 2014. But after my wife, Vicky, pointed out that I had a swollen lymph node in the area where I was experiencing pain, she scheduled an appointment for me to see a doctor in our hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee.
When antibiotics didn’t help, I had a needle biopsy. My results came back negative, but my doctor urged me to have the node surgically removed, just to be safe. Two weeks after the procedure, I had my stiches removed.
That’s when I learned why I’d been experiencing the soreness and swelling: I had tongue cancer – specifically, stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the left base of the tongue. My doctor had only seen four squamous cell carcinoma cases like mine. He gave me only a 50% chance for survival.
Vicky and I were devastated. But I was determined to defy the odds. I needed to get better not just for myself, but also for Vicky and our three daughters.
My squamous cell carcinoma treatment at MD Anderson
We first sought treatment in our hometown and in nearby Nashville, but after hearing about a friend’s success at MD Anderson, we decided to travel to Houston for treatment. We were on a plane within three days of getting an appointment.
After meeting with a my oncologist, Neil Gross, M.D., as well as a radiologist and dentist, I was given my squamous cell carcinoma treatment plan -- six weeks of intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) followed by chemotherapy.
After a brief return home, I started two months of intense treatment – radiation Monday through Friday and chemo on Wednesdays. The radiation was painless, but I experienced side effects like dry mouth and loss of appetite. During chemotherapy, I also dealt with dehydration. Thankfully, my MD Anderson care team knew what to do. They ensured that I received fluids during the rest of my treatment, and I barely got sick again.
During my last week of squamous cell carcinoma treatment, though, I couldn’t keep liquids down. By that point, I’d lost nearly 40 pounds and needed to eat, so I was given a feeding tube. It made me tired, but it kept me nourished and hydrated. Within two weeks, I returned home to Tennessee.
An unexpected pulmonary embolism
After my first day at home, I had severe pain in my back and shoulders. Thinking it was dehydration, Vicky and I went to the emergency room. There we learned the real cause of my discomfort – a pulmonary embolism. I had blood clots in my lungs.
My doctors kept me in the hospital for monitoring for a week, but I was still thankful to be back in Tennessee with my family.
Life after my squamous cell carcinoma treatment
Two months later, I returned to Houston with Vicky and our daughters for my first post-treatment check-up. Our girls were eager to finally see MD Anderson and meet the staff I had told them so much about. I didn’t realize how appreciative my daughters were, though, until my 8-year-old thanked my speech pathologist for saving her daddy’s life.
After my scans and appointments, Dr. Gross came in with two words: all clear. There was no evidence of disease. My entire family rejoiced.
When I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, I’d asked God to get me through cancer to show me something big. I now live everyday like it’s my last and appreciate every breath. As I’ve learned, some things are unpreventable, so you’ve got to have faith and give it your best fight.
I know I’m glad I gave mine.
You've got to have faith and give it your best fight.