On a routine visit, my dentist noticed a few white spots on my gums. I scheduled an appointment with an oral surgeon to have them examined. The doctor said the spots were non-cancerous and removed them. One year later, during a follow-up visit, he took a look at some irritation of my gums that I had noticed a few months prior and performed a biopsy. The results showed cancer: squamous cell carcinoma.
Doctors performed further tests and discovered I had a tumor on my lower left jaw. This would have to be removed, so my doctor referred me to a head and neck cancer surgeon. He told me exactly how the surgery would proceed, and we scheduled it for two weeks later.
At the time of my surgery, I was 58 years old and in great shape. I had been playing softball for my company’s team the whole summer, and had been exercising all of the time. I believe my physical fitness helped me get through this difficult period.
Two weeks after surgeons removed two of my left teeth and a portion of my jaw, I was able to eat Thanksgiving turkey dinner! I thought everything was going great. However, it all changed at my post-op appointment. The doctor told me the cancer had spread to three of my lymph nodes, and I would require radiation and chemotherapy.
So began my next journey with 28 days of chemo and radiation treatment. Having to travel for two hours every day to receive my treatment concerned me, so I looked for local options. Luckily, I found a good option 10 minutes from my home. That choice made the whole treatment process a lot easier.
Prior to starting my treatment, I learned all about what side effects I might experience and began reading online. I would advise others to keep from going down a rabbit hole of information online because it can cause unnecessary stress. Each person will experience cancer differently. No one will have the very same cancer journey.
When I went through the first treatment, I felt great. My doctors told me I probably wouldn’t feel the radiation until about three weeks. About a week after my first chemo treatment, everything started tasting like cardboard; I couldn’t taste food anymore. That’s when it hit me that things were going to change.
Losing the ability to taste was a huge shocker. When someone tells you that you will lose your sense of taste, you have no idea what it will feel like. Doctors warned me that I might lose a lot of weight. This made me nervous, so I made a point to try to eat as much as possible. I found the only meal of the day I could eat was breakfast. I switched between eggs, oatmeal and several bottles of Ensure each morning to keep the calories coming in. It helped me immensely that I was also seeing a nutritionist at the time.
After the second week of chemo/radiation treatment, I realized how stressed my wife was. My frustration about little things caused it. For example, I found myself getting agitated when doctors appointments ran late. At that point, something hit me. I knew I needed to work on controlling my emotions to help keep my wife calm. I convinced her to go back to work and assured her everything would be fine. With my wife’s help, I created a spreadsheet and got into a daily routine of doing the exercises my speech pathologist gave me for swallowing and mouth stretching.
Toward the end of my treatment, I started looking forward to when I would have enough strength to work out again and get back in shape. A couple weeks after my treatment finished, I began to do so. I started feeling a lot better knowing the hard part had passed, and it was comforting to get back into my old routine.
A few months later, I went for another PET scan, which showed I was cancer free! At that time, I struggled with an exposed piece of bone in my mouth that had been cutting my tongue. The oral surgeon got rid of the sharp piece in my mouth in his office. Shortly after, I had my first burger in eight months! That burger tasted wonderful! In my entire life, I had never been so excited to enjoy food without pain and actually taste it.
My biggest piece of advice to others going through a similar journey is have patience and consider how your actions affect those you love. I never realized the impact my own anxiety would have on my wife, so I learned to manage this. When she became calm, I became calm.
I am six years out of my journey with cancer. Since then, my priority has changed to helping those I love however I can. I retired after a 30-year career and had the opportunity to spend quality time with my mother, mother-in-law and father-in-law as they got older. This experience pushed me to make the time to help others more.