My cancer journey began on September 11th, 2001. But it wasn’t for another 18 years that someone would notice anything was wrong.
I was a detective for the New York City Police Department and a first responder on 9/11, so I was on site when the first building fell. The noise was tremendous. I could sense something massive was falling, and instinctively, I knew not to look but to immediately run. I began sprinting. My cell phone fell from my pocket, and I turned to pick it up.
Just as I turned, a blast of heat and dust knocked me to the ground. It was that massive, opaque cloud, the one in all the pictures. Suddenly it was pitch-black and everything was landing on me.
My mouth started filling up with debris. I was pulling out chunks, throwing up. I crawled through the dark until I felt the curb, the sidewalk, and a building. I finally found a group sheltering in an alleyway. Someone shined a flashlight on me and yelled, “Cover your mouth!” But it was too late. The damage was done. At that time and over the next four months while working on site, I didn’t think about the toxic debris I inhaled. I was just doing my job, and I felt fine.
Years later, in December 2019, I happened to accompany my dad to a doctor’s appointment he had with his ENT. When the doctor heard me speak, he immediately asked about my voice. Besides the hoarseness, I occasionally struggled to speak and breathe, but I felt fine. I assumed it was post-nasal drip. The doctor thought it was acid reflux. It was neither. After a few more appointments and an MRI, I found out I had squamous cell carcinoma and a tumor in my voice box.
The diagnosis absolutely shook me. But when I told my buddy and his girlfriend, they immediately reassured me. They said, “Look, you’re going to be fine. You can do this.” I found out the treatment would be 35 doses of radiation and one dose of chemo every 20 days. Due to my size and relative health, I was slated to get a larger-than-average dose of chemo, so I thought I would feel very ill. After reading internet testimonies and speaking with a coworker undergoing cancer treatment, I heard many horror stories. I expected the worst. But after my first treatment, I didn’t have any side effects. To my surprise, I felt fine.
Compared to my expectations, I skated through treatment. I was really lucky. In some sense, I think Google can be your worst enemy – it’s wise to educate yourself, but don’t let everything out there bring you down. Things were actually much better than I feared they might be. Three months after my final radiation dose, I got my first follow-up PET scan. The tumor was gone.
I think my support and mentality helped me through treatment. My friends cooked for me and drove me to my appointments; they were there for me every step of the way. Plus, I was determined to fight. No matter how painful or painstaking, I ate three meals of solid foods every day. At one point, my kidneys crashed and I was hospitalized. But I kept going. I tried to look for the humor in things. I showed the staff pictures of the food I ate—smoked ribs and steak—they were shocked!
Looking back, I lived through a lot. I pushed through some pain, but truthfully, I consider myself very lucky. Sometimes all I can say is, “Wow, I am blessed.”
DIY At-Home Screening for Oral Cancer in 7 Steps
COVID-19 has cancelled oral cancer screenings across the globe. So here’s our 5-minute self-screening you can do while safely at home!