Gordon O’Brien

Stay confident and optimistic throughout the cancer journey. Even though the road is difficult, having the right attitude will help you smooth out the bumps.

Many years ago, a surgeon removed a lump from my mother’s carotid artery. Given my family history, I asked my primary care doctor to look at my carotid artery during my annual physical in December 2000. The doctor found nothing blocking the artery, but he did find a lump next to it. He suggested I consult an ENT specialist for further care. 

The day before my 60th birthday, my wife and I went to see the ENT doctor together. He suspected my bump was a malignant tumor, but he recommended a biopsy to make certain. Thirty minutes later, I learned about the malignant biopsy result. My doctor said I had two options: I could have aggressive radiation treatments, or surgery first followed by radiation. He recommended the latter option, and I agreed. 

The surgery lasted approximately 12 hours. I underwent a partial laryngectomy, as only one side of my larynx had cancer. I stayed in the hospital for five or six days, and recovered at home for a few weeks. 

My friends and family nurtured my spirit and helped me stay energetic. This enabled me to maintain a good attitude…

I then went to see a radiologist, who recommended aggressive radiation, which caused extensive damage to the remaining side of my larynx. As a result, I decided to undergo a complete laryngectomy about three years later. During this time, I experienced anxiety and concern—but I remained optimistic. 

I also stayed active. I spent time at the gym, walked my two dogs, went skiing and played golf. I even worked as a Marshal at the PGA golf tournament—I could barely talk, but I used a small throat device that functioned as a microphone so that people could understand most of my directions. I also did a fair bit of traveling. I took my children to several spots on my bucket list, including Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Egypt and Antarctica. My wife and I visited Paris once and Italy three times. I even ran with the bulls in Spain, which got my heart pumping pretty hard! 

I still struggle with some of the ramifications of my treatment. Nevertheless, I stay active between going to the gym, golfing, walking my two dogs and competing in shot put…

Through it all, my wonderful wife and children supported me. I can’t overstate the importance of this—their love and support empowered me to keep fighting. In fact, I felt tremendous comfort and gained encouragement from everyone in my life. My friends and family nurtured my spirit and helped me stay energetic. This enabled me to maintain a good attitude and keep up with my appointments and medication. 

Today, I still struggle with some of the ramifications of my treatment. My voice fades in and out on a daily basis, but I like to feel 90% of people can hear what I say 90% of the time. I also have some swallowing issues. I recently turned 81, so I don’t have the energy I used to. Nevertheless, I stay active between going to the gym, golfing, walking my two dogs and competing in shot put in the New Jersey Senior Olympics. I also hope to take my family on a ski trip next winter!

…stay confident and optimistic throughout the process. Even though the road is difficult, having the right attitude will help you smooth out the bumps.

I continue to keep in touch with my ENT doctor. I send thank you notes for all that he did for me over the years, and he sends me notes from time to time. Despite the unexpected circumstances under which our relationship began, I feel lucky to have gotten to know such a wonderful doctor and his medical team.

Overall, I consider myself incredibly fortunate. I have seen and heard enough from other patients in various support groups to know how lucky I am to have had a tremendous support system and a lifetime history of optimism. I benefited greatly from these gifts, and I am forever grateful. 

My first piece of advice to patients going through a similar journey is to stay confident and optimistic throughout the process. Even though the road is difficult, having the right attitude will help you smooth out the bumps. In addition, do your best to choose a good medical team to guide you, and follow their recommendations to the letter. They have your best interests at heart!