I grew up in a medical family. My father was a doctor, and my mother was hospital dietitian. So, I've been familiar with medicine and medical terms virtually all my life. But like most people, I was hardly ready for a cancer diagnosis. Hearing words like oropharyngeal, metastasis, fractionated radiation and paclitaxel made it clear that would I have to learn quickly.
After my 2013 diagnosis of stage IV HPV-related tonsil cancer by a Memphis doctor, I immediately rushed into research mode. I went through a frenzy of concern, fear and dread until I could approach my cancer with acceptance and rationality. I wanted to forge a sound, logical plan to move forward but, like most people, this was my first cancer diagnosis, and that proved difficult.
While repressing my first instinct to obsess about whether I’d survive, I knew I wanted the best doctors in the country to manage and treat my cancer. I took the advice of several friends and doctors and quickly made an appointment at MD Anderson. I spent most of the next 12 months in Houston receiving chemotherapy and radiation, and then a radical surgery along with further chemo and radiation to treat a recurrence.
Here’s what I learned during that time.
Give into the experts, not the cancer
After my tonsil cancer diagnosis, I tried to learn as much terminology as I could as fast as I could. But I quickly learned that, regardless of how smart and strong I thought I was, when you consult with surgeons, radiation specialists and oncologists at a world-class cancer center, you're never the smartest person in the room. I learned to follow the guidance from my doctors, allowing them to do their best at treating me, but I never gave any ground to the cancer itself.
Soon after diagnosis, we cancer patients learn to bend, not break. We learn when and how to stay strong, to fight and to surrender. And while you have to cede control to the medical experts around you -- brilliant men and women who are dedicating their lives to people just like you – you still have to hold on to hope and bring your loved ones closer.
Build your support network
Everyone approaches cancer differently, but eventually I learned that it’s essential to rely on your friends and family. They are important not only for feedback and information, but also for support, caring and love.
The same is true with your caregiver. In the course of my cancer treatment, my wife of 35 years, Joan, has been essential for my psychological and physical health. She was loving and compassionate throughout my treatment, displaying patience even when I was more difficult than usual. Truly, hers was a labor of love, and I am very appreciative to have her by my side.
Whether it’s a spouse, a friend or a medical professional, a strong and capable caregiver is essential to your mental and physical recovery. In fact, cancer patients soon learn that the caregiver is such a valuable resource, that they must show the caretaker as much – or more – caring and effort as they receive.
Cancer is a battle
People often call cancer “a difficult journey,” but I prefer to call living with and through cancer and its treatment “a battle” and “a war on cancer.” My episodes of absolute misery have been much more than frequent during treatment and even after two years in remission.
You’re not alone
A final important lesson I’ve learned is that I’m not alone in this fight. MD Anderson'smyCancerConnection one-on-one support program gives patients and caregivers the chance to speak with others who’ve been through the same thing you have. By talking to myCancerConnection volunteers, I learned that there were other guys out there who felt just as bad as I did. In fact, one five-year throat cancer survivor described to me how terrible he felt every day.
However, he reminded that I should never let it get me down. He taught me to be thankful that I’m vertical. I’m alive, and I’m actually doing well compared to many people out there. And so, with his advice, I keep my hope not only for myself, but for everyone that is suffering from this disease.