“Prostate cancer for any man over the age of 60 is acceptable,” Tom says. “You know it’s going to happen. You have to deal with it. However, HPV cancer, for anybody, but especially for a man over the age of 60, is unexpected. My first thought was, ‘How did this happen?’”
Tom’s treatment left him feeling completely broken. He recalls returning home unable to do many of the things he could before treatment. For example, before treatment he ran daily. After treatment, he came home using a walker.
Tom recalls the moment he knew he’d beat this. “It was a great joy in my life when I could walk from my front door and touch the front door of the house across the street, by myself, without falling down,” he says.
The hardest side effect for Tom to overcome was the damage to his salivary glands caused by the radiation treatment. This made talking and tasting food difficult. He needed a speech therapist to help him learn to talk and eat again.
“I was a champion orator in college,” Tom boasts. “After treatment, I needed a speech therapist to help me learn how to talk again. I’m an elected board member for Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District. Imagine what that does to your psyche when you’re talking to people and gibberish comes out.”
Raising awareness about the HPV vaccine
Now three years removed from treatment, Tom has made it his mission to educate people on HPV-related cancers.
“There was some doubt I’d make it two years, even with treatment,” Tom admits. “However, it’s incumbent for me to tell people that this was an HPV-caused cancer, and that cancers like mine can be prevented with the HPV vaccine.”
Fighting back against HPV stigma
As Tom has learned, there’s still a stigma surrounding HPV, and that can make it hard to talk to others about his HPV-related cancer.
When he does, he notices that they often become uneasy. He feels most people don’t understand what HPV is or how you get it.
“The more myself and others with HPV-related cancers talk about it, the more it will educate and help defeat the stigma that surrounds HPV,” Tom says. “We have to defeat the stigma in order to get parents to understand that vaccination of their children is very important.”