I have received a clean bill of health - cancer didn’t win this time!
In December of 2010, my wife, Yahna, and I were overwhelmed with excitement and joy after learning that she was pregnant with not one, not two, but three babies! That high, however, didn’t last long. Two months later, I noticed a protruding lump just below my right jaw bone. My primary care physician said it a swollen lymph node caused by a bacterial infection.
Two rounds of antibiotics failed to address the problem, and my doctor suggested a visit to an ENT where a biopsy was performed. I thought nothing of it. A week later, I was summoned to the doctor’s office to receive the news. Cancer, stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma, was what I was told. I didn’t really know what to do or say, so I made a joke.
The doctor was stunned as my wife and I laughed. I don’t think he knew what to make of my reaction, but it’s what my closest friends and I always did when we’ve faced overwhelming problems. We found things to make us laugh and laughed our way through it. Laughter was our coping mechanism.
The cancer had spread from my right tonsil to my lymph nodes. A team of specialists discussed treatment options and settled on an aggressive approach. First, I needed tonsil surgery, followed by the removal of 34 lymph nodes from the right side of my neck. I was given a month to recover and then I would undergo 6 weeks of chemo and radiation.
While enduring these procedures and treatments, I gradually lost to the ability to eat. The chemo altered my senses to the point that even the smell of my favorite foods made me severely nauseous. The radiation caused massive inflammation inside my throat and destroyed my right salivary gland, making it all but impossible to take food by mouth.
Eating had always been one of my very favorite things to do, something that always seemed to lift my spirits no matter what, and now that was gone. I was down for a moment when my survival instincts kicked in. “Forget about enjoying food”, I said, “How do I survive?” That’s when I decided to have a feeding tube inserted into my abdomen.
For two months, my diet consisted entirely of bolus feeds from a syringe and canned formula. While I could no longer eat, I did find a way to enjoy the steaks, hamburgers, bacon, and cheese that I so loved.
Each day, I would wake up, do what the doctors asked me to do, and then lay in a comfortable position on the couch, flipping from one food channel to another, fantasizing about the day I could visit my favorite restaurants and once again, enjoy delicious food. Holding this pleasurable vision in mind kept me optimistic, motivated and looking forward to regaining my health in full.
All while this was taking place, my wife was on bed rest. For six weeks we talked by phone and texted as she lay in the hospital and I lay on our couch. Beyond my seemingly frivolous desire to one day sink my teeth into a juicy hamburger, I had the very real urge to regain my health, get back to work and take care of my family.
I was determined to do everything I could regain the energy and strength I knew I would need, so I began to explore integrative care practices. I had heard that people who did acupuncture, practiced meditation, exercised and ate healthier foods tended to bounce back faster and were more vigorous during recovery.
This was my first real lesson in the importance of self-care and managing stress. I learned that poor diet, lack of exercise (cancer “hates” oxygen, rigorous exercise increases oxygen levels in your body) and prolonged, heightened levels of stress create an environment favorable to cancer growth. To remain healthy, I needed to dramatically change things and fast.
I have since regained the ability to eat by mouth; I’ve altered my diet to include more fruits and vegetables, began taking immune system boosting over-the-counter supplements and have taken up meditation. In fact, meditation has become such a valued stress management practice for me, that I have begun teaching it to others.
On July 5th, 2011, my daughters Spring, Summer, and Autumn were born. Six years later, I have received a clean bill of health from my doctors, regained my strength, energy, the ability to eat the foods I love, and most importantly to care for, and laugh with my family and friends. Cancer didn’t win this time!
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