Throat cancer survivor: Personalized treatment at MD Anderson left me cancer-free
When I moved to central Louisiana for my job as a high school football coach in 2016, I starting hearing great things about MD Anderson almost immediately. Any time I had to go to the doctor for something, my local friends would tell me that if it ever turned out to be cancer, I needed to make the four-hour drive to Houston and go to MD Anderson.
So, when I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue base — a type of throat cancer — in September 2019, I went straight to MD Anderson. And after chemotherapy and radiation therapy, I show no evidence of disease.
My throat cancer symptoms
The only throat cancer symptom I had was a little lump under the left side of my jaw. I’d been aware of it for a while, but since I’d had sinus problems all my life, I didn’t think anything of it. I just assumed it was another swollen lymph node.
After about a year, I finally went to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist to have it looked at. He kind of blew it off, so I let it go for a few more weeks. Then I started noticing it appeared to be bigger in the mornings and smaller as the day progressed. That shrinkage seemed kind of weird to me, so I went to see my general practitioner about it. She agreed and sent me to a different ENT.
The new ENT ordered a CT scan. Once he looked at the film, he knew immediately what it was. He specialized in throat cancer, and said he’d seen exactly what I had before. He told me flat out that it was probably throat cancer, but ordered a biopsy to confirm it. That’s when I made the call to MD Anderson.
How I avoided surgery for throat cancer
At MD Anderson, I met first with head and neck surgeon Dr. Neil Gross. He ordered new scans and tests to confirm my diagnosis. After reviewing the results and examining me, he said, “Look: I like doing surgery. I like going in and getting these things out of people. But I honestly feel like surgery would be overtreatment for you.”
Dr. Gross referred me to a colleague, head and neck medical oncologist Dr. Renata Ferrarotto. She consulted with radiation oncologist Dr. Adam Garden. Together, they determined that my best option was chemotherapy and radiation. I probably wouldn’t need surgery at all. That sounded great to me, so I said, “OK, you guys know what’s best. Let’s go.”
My throat cancer treatment
I started chemotherapy in early October. I got three rounds of one of the strongest cocktails you can get: cisplatin, docetaxel and fluorouracil. Each one began with an infusion at MD Anderson. Then, I’d go home and wear a pump for the next four days. After that, I’d take a two-week break and start all over again.
I had my last dose of chemotherapy in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. A few days later, I started radiation therapy. I had 33 rounds of that, once a day, Monday through Friday. I rang the bell to mark my last radiation treatment on Feb. 13, 2020.
The first scans to check my progress took place three months later. Everything came back fine. All of my scans have been clear ever since. So, going to MD Anderson was definitely the right decision.
The most surprising thing about my throat cancer diagnosis
Aside from the fact that I even had it, the most surprising thing about my throat cancer diagnosis was learning that it was most likely caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). I’d always associated throat cancer with heavy smoking. But I’ve never smoked.
My doctors tried to confirm that the tumor was caused by HPV through testing, but the tissue sample from the biopsy was to too small to obtain conclusive results. Still, my cancer resembled HPV-related disease in every way, so my doctors treated it as if it was.
My tumor responded so well to chemotherapy that my care team concluded it was caused by HPV. That’s why I’ve been urging my two sons to get the vaccine. They are both in their 20s now, but that’s still within the window of opportunity for young people. And I wouldn’t want either of them to have to go through what I did.
If the HPV vaccine had been around when I was a kid and I’d known it could’ve prevented me from getting cancer, I definitely would’ve gotten it. So, I encourage anyone who still can to do the same.