In January 2017, I noticed a change in my voice and unexplained soreness in my throat—it felt like I had a cold. When I asked my wife to get me an ENT appointment, her face changed. You see, many years ago, I had a benign polyp removed from my vocal cord, so I was familiar with the sensation. I went to a local ENT, and after an examination, my suspicion was confirmed. I had a polyp on the right vocal cord and dysplasia on the left. I underwent surgery in March. At the time, I was most concerned about how the procedure would affect my voice.
Luckily, the surgery went well, and I recovered quickly. But during the follow-up visit, I received news that changed my life. The samples taken from both vocal cords during surgery were positive for squamous cell carcinoma. The ENT had faith that all the offending cells were removed, and the immediate plan was to see if the cancer would come back. Four months later, the cancer came back. We informed our family of this diagnosis.
I realized that this was now going to be a fight for my life. My wife and I started to research treatment options, reaching out to family members who were nurses and enlisting their friends and medical colleagues for guidance. My diet immediately changed. I was forbidden to consume anything that could weaken my body—no caffeine, alcohol, or soda. We scheduled a consultation at a large NYC hospital for a second opinion. During our meeting, the director of the head & neck department recommended radiation therapy over surgery since my vocal cords were affected bilaterally. I thanked them and took this information.
During my wife’s research she discovered there was a major cancer institute facility conveniently located near our home. We scheduled an appointment and decided to have the radiation treatments performed there. In September 2018, I received the first of 29 treatments. It was trying. I remained focused on the prize, victory against this disease, and I persevered through the treatments. A month later, I was optimistic: no more radiation treatments or restraining masks, plus my weight was consistent and my throat pain was subsiding. It seemed like I had won the battle, but unfortunately, I hadn’t.
Several months later, a polyp was detected during a monthly follow-up visit. After a biopsy, it was confirmed. The squamous cell carcinoma had returned. The next step recommended by my medical team was a total laryngectomy. Only after I questioned this diagnosis did the doctor say I might be a good candidate for a partial laryngectomy. I had to travel to a different hospital in Philadelphia to get the special procedure.
This doctor requested more biopsies to assess whether I was a good candidate for the procedure. Again, I went under the knife, giving the doctor the ability to explore and take deeper tissue samples. He was confident he could remove my cancer, but the supracricoid partial laryngectomy that he performed was quite invasive, and patients can struggle with pneumonia, difficulty swallowing and choking after surgery.
They took the samples and we waited for the results. Meanwhile, my niece referred us to a doctor in NYC. Coincidentally, she met someone with stage 4 throat cancer who could find only one doctor willing to treat him, and that doctor saved their lives. We researched the doctor and discovered that he could perform surgery on patients who had failed radiation of the vocal cords—exactly my situation. We quickly scheduled an appointment.
After meeting the doctor in person, I knew that he was the right choice. We asked questions—lots of questions—not only during the consultation, but for days afterward, too. I was amazed with his patience, his willingness to make me feel comfortable with my decision, and his ability to describe the procedure in terms that I could comprehend and explain to my family. The decision was made. I would get a two-stage surgery to dissect, remove and reconstruct my vocal cords. Just prior to surgery, the doctor presented a consent form to me, to grant him permission to perform a total laryngectomy if clear margins could not be obtained while I was still under anesthesia. I signed and gave my consent. When the doctor walked away, my wife asked how I felt about giving this consent. I said, “Fine, I trust this doctor with my life, he will do everything in his power for a positive outcome.”
My surgery took 5 hours. Unfortunately, both my vocal cords were taken, but the underlying cartilage was spared, allowing the neck folds to be attached between. When I woke up, my doctor was there, and he told me that the operation was a success. For the next week, my focus was to get back on my feet. It wasn’t easy, but I thought the faster I move, the faster I recover. For exercise, I would walk the hallways of the hospital floor, bettering the count with each passing day, gaining strength, confidence, uplifting me to do more and more.
For someone about to make this journey, I wish I could say it will be easy. But it won’t be. And at times, it will take all your strength to keep going. Remember to go easy on yourself. Some days will be good and some days you will want to give up. But don’t give up. Think of the future.
I have been cancer free for over two years, but in the back of my mind the fear of this disease resurfaces every time that there is a tickle in my throat. To survive, I developed a new way of thinking; I tell myself there are things that I cannot control and all I can do is take one step at a time, one day at a time and think through things positively. There are two things that carried me through, and anyone traveling this road will need these two things, too. The first thing you need is to believe in your medical team and their skills, and you also need to believe in yourself. The second, is hope for the future to be victorious in your battle against cancer, and hope that medicine will continue to advance until one day this disease will be no more.
A cancer diagnosis for me brought fear. Fear of uncertainty for my future, fear for my quality of life, fear of dying, and fear of vulnerability. But after gaining knowledge and finding the right doctor who gives you hope and confidence of a positive outcome, you begin to see the options that are available to you and you become ready to fight. It is imperative to ask questions, talk to people who have been down this path, ask even more questions, and explore all available treatment options. Only with this knowledge can you make an educated decision, choosing the treatment which offers the best outcome for you.
Honestly, I would not have been able to get through this experience without the help of my wife and family. My wife became my private nurse; she remained at my side during my hospital stays, sleeping in chairs, eating whatever, and was there for me at home during my recovery. After my initial surgery, she performed the daily maintenance of my trachea and wound. The medical staff often complimented her on the care she provided. My family provided me with emotional support throughout this journey, reminding me each day of what I was fighting for: their love, and our future together.
I am eternally grateful for my medical team who through their skills, dedication, and care gave me a chance for a positive outcome. This whole experience has made me thankful for my family and friends who rallied behind me and gave the strength to fight, and thankful for my coworkers and employer who provided support and acceptance.