Tonsil cancer survivor: 'MD Anderson will always be a part of me'
When Tim Hardesty walks the MD Anderson skybridge in short sleeves, he’s frequently stopped by employees and patients alike who notice the striking tattoo on his right bicep. The word “cancer” with a red line drawn through the middle is a recognizable sight to those familiar with MD Anderson, but its meaning is clear enough to anyone.
“It sends a huge message with one simple graphic: we can end cancer,” says Tim, who decided to get the tattoo mid-way through his treatment for HPV-related tonsil cancer. He gives the same answer whenever he’s asked about the body art: “I will always be a part of MD Anderson, and MD Anderson will always be a part of me. We’re family.”
Tim’s tonsil cancer diagnosis and treatment
Tim first noticed the lump on his neck in June 2020 during a morning shave. “It seemed to appear out of nowhere,” he says. When it didn’t clear up after he took antibiotics, he visited an ENT, who thought the lump was likely a benign branchial cleft cyst and removed it through surgery.
But the pathology report showed it was cancer. The first oncologist Tim visited recommended he immediately get a port placed for chemotherapy.
“That just didn’t seem right to me,” Tim says. “I know cancer is very serious, but why would we need to rush this fast?”
He sought a second opinion at MD Anderson, where he learned the first step was actually to determine the primary source of his cancer. The mass on his neck, it turned out, was metastatic disease. Tim remembers being amazed when Maura Gillison, M.D., Ph.D., accurately predicted that they’d find the primary cancer in his left tonsil. This type of cancer, she assured Tim, was something her team had diagnosed and treated many times before.
Tim had a tonsillectomy with surgeon Jeffrey Myers, M.D., Ph.D., followed by 33 rounds of radiation therapy with Jack Phan, M.D, Ph.D. Because Tim's primary cancer was successfully located in his left tonsil, he was able to receive radiation to a smaller area than if the primary cancer had been left undetermined. After he completed radiation therapy in September, a scan revealed a few inflamed lymph nodes that could be a sign of cancer recurrence in his neck. Tim’s doctors gave him a choice: wait 30 days and have another scan, or have surgery now to remove the lymph nodes. He chose surgery, which found no remaining cancer cells. This gave Tim an excellent prognosis, according to Myers.
Supportive and safe tonsil cancer care
During his six weeks of radiation therapy, Tim drove to MD Anderson for treatment Monday through Friday and experienced the organization’s COVID-19 precautions first-hand, including entry screening and wearing a medical-grade face mask.
“They handed out clean masks to everyone entering MD Anderson and made sure they sanitized their hands,” Tim says. “It gave great peace of mind to everyone entering that environment, knowing MD Anderson was doing their due diligence.”
“Coming to MD Anderson is honestly the best decision I’ve ever made,” Tim adds. “Everyone is so supportive, all the way from James at the front door; to Dana and Karen, my radiation techs; to my surgeon, Dr. Myers, and his PA, Jill. Everybody is just phenomenal -- even the people whose names I don’t know, but interacted with every day.”
A strong connection to ending cancer
Before he even finished his treatment, Tim had seen enough of MD Anderson to know that he wanted to make his connection to the cancer center permanent with a new tattoo.
“My wife was a little upset that I was running down to the tattoo shop instead of resting,” Tim says. “But I was motivated and wanted to do it. I saw the design on a T-shirt in the MD Anderson gift shop, and it really spoke to me. MD Anderson’s goal is to end cancer by any means necessary.”
Tim intentionally had the tattoo drawn in a visible location and is glad it has sparked conversations with other cancer survivors, both inside MD Anderson waiting rooms and out in the community. He’s always happy when it inspires strangers to ask about his experience or to share their own with him.
“Not everybody has someone they can talk to,” Tim says. “How many times have you heard someone say – or said yourself – ‘I can only imagine what you’re going through’? It’s really nice to talk to someone who knows exactly what you mean, exactly how you feel. If I’m positive, it might make someone else smile, and there’s no better feeling in the world.”