While I was shaving one morning in 2012, I noticed a large lump under my jaw. I immediately made an appointment to see an ear, nose and throat specialist, who told me that it was just a benign cyst.
Over the next year, I went back for two additional exams. By November 2013, a nurse finally suggested a CT scan and an additional biopsy of the tissue under my jaw. Bingo! They discovered the lump was from cancer that metastasized from my left tonsil. The cancer was caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
At that point, I quickly assembled a list of referrals, talked to my doctor friends and made follow-up appointments near my home in Memphis, Tennessee. I knew I wanted to get the best care in the country for my specific cancer. Phone call after phone call led me to MD Anderson.
My tonsil cancer treatment at MD Anderson
Within 24 hours of calling MD Anderson, I had scheduled an appointment and arranged to travel to Houston from Memphis, Tennessee. I first met with my MD Anderson oncologist, Merrill Kies, M.D., and radiologist, William Morrison, M.D., in December 2013. They confirmed that I had stage IV HPV-16 tonsil cancer, and I started chemotherapy about two weeks later. I had eight weeks of chemotherapy as part of a clinical trial, followed by six weeks of daily radiation therapy plus weekly chemo. I managed to make it through this period, but was terribly sick and had a great deal of pain and sensitivity, as well vocal cord paralysis that forever changed my voice.
In June 2014, I was declared to be in remission. Unfortunately, my doctors discovered evidence of tonsil cancer recurrence that August. I met with head and neck surgeon Erich Sturgis, M.D., and had a radical neck surgery to remove the tumor, as well as parts of my neck and chest muscle, in September. Afterwards, I underwent several more rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, finishing in late November. I was declared cancer-free for the second time in June 2015, and have since been enjoying a full and productive life.
I am grateful that I came to MD Anderson for my tonsil cancer treatment. Not only does MD Anderson conduct groundbreaking cancer research and offer innovative treatments to patients; they also see hundreds of different types of cancers, have experience with the latest treatments and enroll patients in thousands of clinical trials.
A shot to prevent cancer
Cancer is often frightening and deadly because it often doesn’t show any symptoms until the disease highly advanced. That was the case for me.
That’s why cancer prevention is so important. Since my diagnosis, I’ve been surprised to learn that up to 50% of all cancers could be prevented, and that many can be prevented with the HPV vaccine. If the HPV vaccine had been available when I was an adolescent, I could’ve avoided tonsil cancer – and the chemotherapy, radiation, radical surgery, vocal cord paralysis, pain and sensitivity that came with it.
HPV causes several types of cancer, including cervical, anal, genital and oropharyngeal (head and neck) cancers. Because of the increase in male HPV infections and the decline in men's smoking rates, HPV is now the largest cause of head and neck cancers among U.S. men. In fact, there are more HPV-related head and neck cancers diagnosed each year in men than there are cervical cancers in women.
Personally, I'm excited to know that there is a vaccine that can prevent my type of throat cancer. That didn’t exist when I was young, but I wish it had. Our goal should be to ensure that every parent vaccinates their sons and daughters so they don’t have to go through what thousands of patients like me have.
To learn more about HPV-related cancers, join MD Anderson for our HPV Prevention and Awareness Survivor Advocacy Training on Feb. 17. Learn more.