Nobody was more surprised than Bill Earthman when he was diagnosed with HPV-related throat cancer two years ago.
Like many people, the then-48-year-old had always associated the human papillomavirus (HPV) with cervical cancer. He didn’t realize that it also could cause cancer in men.
“I was pretty shocked,” Bill says. “I had never really heard of throat cancer being caused by HPV.”
Since then, Bill has discovered that many men he knows have also been diagnosed with HPV-related throat cancer. “This is not just something that a couple of guys are getting,” he says. “HPV-related throat cancer diagnoses are growing by 5% a year in men.”
Unexpected throat cancer symptoms
The first sign of Bill’s own trouble was when he lost his voice in January 2014.
“It sounded like I had a cold,” he says. “But I felt fine. I let it go on for a few weeks. It never got better.”
After seeing an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT), Bill was diagnosed with vocal cord paralysis. The doctor also noticed swelling in Bill’s throat and wanted to perform a biopsy. Within a few weeks, Bill had surgery to correct the paralysis. The biopsy was done at the same time.
“The doctor came back and said it was throat cancer: squamous cell carcinoma,” Bill says. “I was stunned. Throat cancer is usually in the base of the tongue or in the tonsils. But mine was in the larynx, or voice box.”
Finding comfort in expertise
Bill’s ENT gave him a list of specialists. The first one told him there wasn’t anything more to be done surgically, so Bill came to MD Anderson for a second opinion. Immediately, he was impressed.
“At MD Anderson, everything is well lined-up,” Bill says. “Dr. Randal Weber gave me a timeline of what he thought should happen, treatment-wise. Then I talked to Dr. Faye Johnson, the chemo oncologist, and Dr. Steven Frank, in proton therapy. It was very comforting to know that they had experience in dealing with my kind of situation and had everything scheduled out for me.”
Throat cancer treatment and side effects
Bill started his throat cancer treatment at MD Anderson in April 2014. Over the course of five months, he underwent multiple courses of chemotherapy, radiation and proton therapy. He received his last treatment on August 19, 2014, and now shows no evidence of disease.
“For me, side effects have been fairly minimal,” Bill says. “I still have some neuropathy in my hands and feet, but my sense of taste is fine. I just get a bit of mucus in my throat. I lost my voice for a week-and-a-half after the last proton therapy treatment, though. It kind of freaked me out. But my doctor said it would come back, and it did.”
Protecting the next generation
Bill is now focused on the one legacy he does not want to pass down to his sons. “When it comes to HPV causing cancer, the numbers are pretty frightening,” Bill says. “So I try to educate my boys.” He has already started his 13-year-old on the three-shot HPV vaccine series. His 7-year-old will get it, too, in a few years.
To prevent others from having to go through what he did, Bill is also speaking out. “This type of cancer at an epidemic level,” he says, “but because it’s HPV-related, it’s like, ‘Shhh!’”
And as for parents who are still on the fence about whether to get their kids vaccinated, Bill has a message.
“Get it because I know the other side,” Bill says. “Getting cancer and dealing with treatment and all of the side effects is far worse than getting the HPV vaccine.”