For Phil Gonzalez, the toughest part of his head and neck cancer treatment was losing the ability to taste. After doctors found the squamous cell carcinoma in the left side of his jaw, Phil had to undergo a 10-hour surgery. MD Anderson doctors removed his tumor, along with a portion of his jaw bone, and then rebuilt it using a bone from his ankle, along with titanium plates, a 3D printer and a virtual replica created from MRI and CT images.
During his cancer treatment, Phil spent less than a month on a feeding tube, two months on an all-liquid diet and weeks in physical therapy. But to Phil this wasn't nearly as tough as not being able to taste his food, a side effect from his 6 weeks of radiation and chemotherapy -- that was the hardest for Phil. During his squamous cell carcinoma treatment, his wife brought him his favorite food, a banana split, but he couldn't taste it at all.
Eventually, Phil's sense of taste returned. He still remembers the first meal he could appreciate again: a cheeseburger from his favorite fast-food joint.
"It was the best meal I've ever had," he says.
Phil's squamous cell carcinoma diagnosis and treatment
Phil's cancer journey had begun with what he thought was a mere toothache. After several trips to the dentist and even having a tooth pulled, the pain continued. It was then that Phil's dentist knew this wasn't just a toothache.
Phil was referred to an oral surgeon who performed a biopsy. The results were clear. Phil had squamous cell carcinoma of the left mandible, a type of head and neck cancer. He quickly scheduled an appointment with his family doctor and then he was referred to MD Anderson.
"I never said, 'why me,'" Phil says. "I said, "We're going to kick this in the butt'."
Phil recovered from his squamous cell carcinoma surgery quickly. So quickly that he had to stay in the hospital an extra night after his doctors released him because his wife wasn't ready for him to come home. They had expected him to be in the hospital for 10 days. Instead, he was ready to leave after three days.
Phil's medical team, comprised of Michael E. Kupferman, M.D., in Head and Neck Surgery, Peirong Yu, M.D., in Plastic Surgery, and Mark S. Chambers, D.M.D., in Oncologic Dentistry, helped him through each step of his medical treatment.
Finally, after five disease-free years of monitoring for a recurrence, Kupferman told Phil he was officially cancer-free. Phil had brought a gift for Kupferman to thank him for his care, but Phil was so excited about the good news, he forgot to give his doctor the gift and had to mail it later. The gift, a clock and a picture frame, still sits on Kupferman's desk.
Celebrating the end of squamous cell carcinoma treatment
Phil decided to celebrate his clean bill of health with his motorcycle ride across the country. It was something he'd always wanted to do, and he decided then he wasn't going to put it off any longer.
"Now my trip had a purpose," he says.
He rode his motorcycle from Houston to the east coast, then north to Washington, D.C., then west to California before finally heading back to Houston. It was a total of 10,000 miles in six weeks, but Phil made memories he continues to cherish.
Savoring life - and meals
Phil still makes the occasional trip to Houston from his current home in El Paso. But it's no longer for cancer treatment. It's to visit his son, who attends culinary school here.
With his taste buds back, Phil fully appreciates having a chef in the family.
"Cancer changed me. I see the beauty in all of this. I see life in a different perspective," he says. "I take my time with everything, including when it comes to meals. I'm always the last to finish, and I enjoy every bite. My quality of life has blossomed thanks my wonderful doctors and staff at MD Anderson. They cared about me to get well. They were awesome."