Retired navy pilot faces oropharynx cancer like a storm
As a retired Navy hurricane research pilot, I don’t leave anything up to chance. When I was with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Corps, I flew a P-3 into the eye of Hurricane Hugo. We were hit by a tornado, lost an engine and were trapped for two-and-a-half hours. So, in January 2011, when I discovered a lump on my jaw that didn’t feel right, I made an appointment with my ENT.
The ENT recommended I see a surgeon and have a biopsy. My doctor told me that I had oropharynx squamous cell carcinoma – a cancer of the throat and neck that had spread to the back of my tongue and the lymph nodes in my neck. It was caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
After my wife died of ovarian cancer in 2005, I’d made a promise to myself to be proactive about my health. So, I went home and started to figure out how I would get to MD Anderson.
After doing my research, I wanted to see if I was a candidate for proton therapy at MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center. I called to get an appointment at MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center, found an apartment in Houston, and traveled there for my first visit and scans.
First oropharynx cancer patient in the nation to receive IMPT
IMPT is one of the most advanced forms of proton therapy. It delivers a precise dose of protons to tumors embedded in the nooks and crannies of the head and neck, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.
Dr. Frank said IMPT would preserve my ability to taste and maintain proper functionality of my salivary glands.
In order to receive proton therapy, I would need to have 14 gold crowns removed from my teeth since they would interfere with the radiation. So, I flew back home to Florida on a Friday, had my dentist remove seven crowns from my mouth on Saturday and seven more on Sunday. I returned to Houston the next day to begin six –and-a—half-weeks of proton beam radiation. I knew my cancer had already spread so I wanted to start treatment as soon as I could. After treatment, when I returned to Florida, my dentist put my gold crowns back in my mouth.
Coping with side effects from IMPT
The first three weeks of treatment were the hardest. I didn’t know anyone in Houston. My care team became my biggest support system. I saw Dr. Frank every week. He made sure that everything stayed on track. He helped me stay positive and committed.
The monoclonal antibodies injections caused my skin to temporarily break out. The proton therapy caused dry mouth, sore throat and fatigue. I was still able to go for daily walks and eat three meals a day. I drank smoothies for breakfast and lunch and made myself eat a meal for dinner, even when I couldn’t taste it. I knew I needed the nutrition to keep going.
During treatment, I tried to make someone laugh every day. I made a point to talk to other patients in the lobby. You have a choice every day to be happy or be a grouch. Make the choice to spread happiness.
At my last proton therapy treatment on May 5, 2011, I vividly remember my nose starting to itch. Because of the treatment mask, I couldn’t move. I decided to focus on the music playing in the treatment room instead. That helped a lot. I would wiggle my toes with the music to show the therapists I was dancing during treatment.
Everyone at the Proton Therapy Center was fantastic. From the nurses I taught to two-step in the treatment room to the physicist who grew up in an area of China I’d served in, everyone was fully invested in ensuring I beat the disease.
Living life to the fullest after cancer treatment
It’s been 10 years since my treatment at MD Anderson. I continue to spread the word that there is no place to receive proton radiation treatment quite like MD Anderson. I tell people that if you want to get the best, even if you must travel, go to MD Anderson. People don’t realize that you only give up a few months of your life to gain many more healthy years.
When you have stage IV cancer and it’s already spread to your lymph nodes, you just feel thankful to be alive. I know this firsthand: I’ve been able to do a lot of things in my life the past 10 years, thanks to the treatment and clinical trial opportunity that I received at MD Anderson.