From tonsil cancer survivor to HPV vaccine advocate
I wish the HPV vaccine had been available when I was younger.
If it had been, I might not have developed the tonsil cancer that stole a year of my life, along with my taste buds, my salivary glands and my ability to eat solid food comfortably.
If I’d gotten the HPV vaccine when I was a kid, chances are good that I could have avoided the six weeks of chemotherapy and 33 daily rounds of radiation therapy I endured last summer, as well as all of the unpleasant side effects they caused.
My tonsil cancer diagnosis
My cancer journey began in February 2016, when I started feeling pain in my jaw. I also saw some little white spots on my right tonsil, so I went to a walk-in clinic near my home in St. Martinville, Louisiana. Doctors there diagnosed me with tonsillitis and gave me some antibiotics.
After a couple of weeks, I was still feeling pain in my throat, and I’d found some lumps on the right side of my neck. I went to my ENT, who also diagnosed me with tonsillitis. He prescribed steroids plus a second round of antibiotics. They made no difference. When I returned, he told me to see a dentist to make sure my teeth weren’t causing the problem. The dentist found nothing.
Finally, my ENT ordered a CT scan, which showed a mass in my neck. He scheduled surgery to remove my tonsils in June and asked where I wanted to go if the biopsy showed squamous cell carcinoma. He gave me a choice between MD Anderson and a hospital closer to home. My wife and I picked MD Anderson because we heard it was the best. Why would I want to go anywhere else if I’m fighting for my life?
My tonsil cancer treatment
When the results of my biopsy came back, I was referred to MD Anderson. There, I saw Ann Gillenwater, M.D. She confirmed that I had squamous cell carcinoma in my right tonsil, and said that tests showed it was caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). The lumps in my neck were where the cancer had spread to nearby lymph nodes.
To treat my cancer, I underwent 33 daily rounds of radiation under the direction of G. Brandon Gunn, M.D.,and six weeks of chemotherapy starting in late July. I couldn’t endure a seventh week because my white blood cell count got too low. I finally finished treatment in early September and went home to recover.
In October, I returned to MD Anderson for a CT scan. It showed the tumor was gone and three of the four affected lymph nodes were back to normal. The fourth lymph node was still visible, but much smaller. On Dec. 19, 2016, I returned for a PET scan. That’s when I got the great news: I had no signs of cancer.
Why I support the HPV vaccine
Before my tonsil cancer diagnosis, I didn’t really know anything about HPV. But I’ve since learned that it causes many forms of cancer in both men and women.
I have a son who’s 15 now and two stepsons who are 14 and 18. Once I found out how HPV was connected to cancer, I made sure they got vaccinated. I tell every other parent I know to have their kids vaccinated, too.
Being treated for tonsil cancer was one of the hardest tests my body and mind have ever been through. I lost 100 pounds in six months, developed painful ulcers in my mouth, and still have ringing in my ears. My taste buds and salivary glands have also changed, and it’s taken me a long time to go back from liquid to solid foods.
As grateful as I am to be cancer-free today, it’s no exaggeration to describe what I went through as an ordeal. It was physical torture and mental anguish. So, if you could prevent your child from getting cancer with just a couple of vaccination shots, why wouldn’t you?
MD Anderson is focusing on HPV-related cancers as part of its Moon Shots Program™ to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. Learn more about our HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot™.
To learn more about HPV-related cancers, join MD Anderson for our HPV Prevention and Awareness Survivor Advocacy Training on Aug. 4. Learn more.