My second encounter with cancer, which took place three years ago, was terrifyingly different from my first encounter. I saw a doctor for nearly a year because of throat pain and difficulty swallowing before I was correctly diagnosed, apparently not an uncommon experience. Unfortunately, my regular doctor was on leave and I had to see another doctor in the clinic. When I explained that I was having trouble swallowing and coughing a lot, she took a summary look at my throat, suggested it was probably “acid reflux” and prescribed medication.
When I returned later still complaining, she sent me for a standard x-ray, which came back negative. She prescribed another round of the same medication and told me to come back after that was gone. When I returned, she told me that I would just have to learn to “live with the pain” and that it was “nothing serious.”
Finally, my regular physician returned and I went back because by this time it was incredibly painful just to drink water. He immediately referred me to a throat specialist, who took one look down my throat and scheduled me for a biopsy the same week. Within days I was having a CAT Scan to determine the extent of the cancer.
Unfortunately, the cancer had advanced to the stage where the throat surgeon was afraid they might have to remove my tongue to remove it. I told him, given that option, I guess I would just have to die. He referred me to a chemotherapist and radiologist. The radiologist was anything but optimistic, suggesting that I might have to have all of my teeth pulled before therapy, that I would most likely lose my saliva glands, and, to top it all off, that it was probably one of the most painful forms of radiation treatment. He insisted I see a surgeon at Oregon Health Sciences University before beginning treatment.
Leslie and I didn’t have much to say on the way home. After the consultation, I went home, went to bed, curled up in a fetal position and prepared to die. I had never felt so vulnerable and so helpless. At least in Vietnam I had the ability to fight back. There seemed to be nothing to do but submit to treatment and prepare for the worst.
Fortunately Dr. Andersen at OHSU was convinced that he could perform the surgery without having to remove the tongue. The surgery was radical and required removing my epiglottis but, considering the alternatives, seemed the best choice. It took me about five minutes to schedule the surgery which, mercifully, took place within a few days.
As noted in a rather infamous Christmas blog entry, recovery, was slow and frustrating, but was manageable with persistence and a sense of humor. Although I had to relearn how to eat and how to swallow with my vocal chords, I’ve managed to recover and learn how to eat all but a few of my favorite foods. I’m also more prone to bronchitis and pneumonia, but so far there’s no sign the cancer is returning and I seem to get a little stronger each year.
When dealing with a cancer as aggressive as the one I had, there are no guarantees of success. The doctor gave me, at best, a 50% chance of remaining free from cancer. The surgery contained its own risks and required strong lungs and relatively good health. Still, because the procedure I had is apparently not widely available, I feel lucky to have found someone who could perform it.
between winter storms.