I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil, a type of head and neck cancer, in December 2012. I met with some of the best doctors near my home in southern California, but I never left those appointments with confidence in their gameplan. Surgeons told us surgery was the solution, the oncologist said chemotherapy was the answer, and the radiation oncologist said radiation therapy was the way to go.
Feeling confused, we decided to visit MD Anderson. I had always heard they were the best in the world at fighting cancer, and, after a little bit of research on the Internet, it sure looked like the right place.
We did not want to leave our family, the incredible support network we have in California, and the very real blessing of living in our own comfortable home to go through what promised to be a very challenging head and neck cancer treatment. Even with all of those factors, our confidence was so high in what we heard that we decided to leave all that behind to benefit from MD Anderson's care.
Visiting MD Anderson for head and neck cancer treatment
The head and neck surgeon was our first appointment. He said his preference was to avoid surgery unless it is absolutely necessary, and he did not think it would be necessary in my case. Wow, a surgeon telling you he does not recommend a surgical approach?
Initially, there was no evidence as to where my primary tumor was located. A lymph node on the right side of my neck had swollen, indicating the cancer started somewhere in my neck. There was a reasonably high likelihood that it started either at the base of my tongue or in my tonsils, so doctors took biopsies from the tongue and removed my tonsils for a pathology analysis. The primary tumor was ultimately found in my right tonsil.
Next, my treatment plan was reviewed by the Head and Neck Cancer Board, made up of eight surgeons, seven radiation oncologists and seven medical oncologists, all of whom only deal with head and neck cancers. It was reassuring to not only know the three doctors would be working together to develop a specific plan for me, but that 22 head and neck cancer specialists would then review and decide upon the treatment plan.
Life after cancer treatment
The treatment prescribed at MD Anderson had less severe side effects than what we were told in southern California. I was thankful that the hospital recommending a reduced plan had a long reputation of being very tough in fighting cancer, as well as being renowned for their research and experience. Had I received this recommendation from a hospital with less experience, it would have been more difficult to accept.
In total, I saw 22 professionals (surgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, dental oncologist, speech therapist, nutritionist, integrated therapist, pain clinic, labs/tests, etc.). Throughout my time at MD Anderson, all 22 were located in the same building. They treat the same patients, they know each other, they have history together, and can communicate with each other very easily and can see the results of all their clinical trials, etc.
You would swear everyone at MD Anderson was required to take a class on how to serve cancer patients. They were all extremely friendly, encouraging and upbeat.
Doctors will always be doctors, but generally speaking they all had very good bedside manners. At a time when I felt I had the world on my shoulders, it was nice to deal with people who understand.