A simple shave turned Christopher Damico's life upside down.
"I was shaving my neck when I felt a lump that was out of place," says Damico. "I thought it was a swollen gland, but the lump didn't go away. I had it checked out and, long story short, that lump was a lymph node to which cancer had spread from somewhere in my head and neck."
The 45-year-old husband and father of three was floored when he received a stage IV diagnosis.
"I didn't think I had any of the classic risk factors of head and neck cancer. I never smoked, I didn't chew tobacco and I wasn't a heavy drinker," he says. "It turns out, in fact, I did have a significant risk factor: exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV)."
About 80% of people - men and women - will at some point be infected with HPV.
"Virtually everyone, including young men and boys, will be exposed to HPV," says Erich Sturgis, M.D., professor, Head and Neck Surgery. "That puts them at risk for developing these types of throat cancers."
"I looked for the best head and neck treatment centers in the nation," says Damico, who lives in Los Angeles, California. "MD Anderson was at the top of that list."
"I was looking for a place that knew how to deal with my treatment when and if things went sideways, a place that could help me if I had to go from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C," Damico says. "That is when expertise matters, and that type of expertise only comes with the experience and knowledge that exists at a place like MD Anderson."
Throughout his cancer journey, Damico flew back and forth weekly from Los Angeles to Houston for radiation and chemotherapy so that he could spend the weekends back home with family. He quickly grew more interested in what was happening in his body - the biology, chemistry and physics of the cancer treatment.
"Even after my cancer treatment, when I'd come to Houston for quarterly or semi-annual checkups, that interest continued in discussions with Dr. Sturgis," Damico says. "I became fascinated with the idea that vaccines like Gardasil could be used to stop cancers from developing in the first place."
Damico's cancer journey continues post-cancer treatment through his advocacy and determination to raise awareness of HPV-related cancers. He's created the Susan and Christopher Damico Chair for the benefit of the Department of Head and Neck Surgery in support ot the HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot™ team, began serving as a patient advocate for MD Anderson's National Cancer Institute-funded SPORE (Specialized Programs of Research Excellence) grant for HPV-related diseases and joined the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors.
"We have a real opportunity to eradicate these cancers for our children's generation," says Sturgis. "Mr. Damico's support is a significant help in advancing these efforts, from raising awareness in the public to educating policy makers about the problem of HPV."