Jeff Knapp

My advice to anyone currently struggling with cancer, it would be to think about what you can do in the moment to feel your best.

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My first bout with cancer began 6 years ago. One day, while I was shaving, I noticed a bump on my neck. I thought I was getting the flu, but I had no other symptoms, and the bump didn’t go away. During a routine checkup, I mentioned the bump. The doctors were worried by what they saw, so they sent me to get X-rays. 

After my X-rays, I was told to go to the cancer center. When I heard those words—”cancer center”—I remember feeling shaken up. The doctor told me I had a tumor in my throat that had metastasized to my lymph nodes. The doctor did a biopsy, which came back as adenoid cystic carcinoma. My wife suggested I get another test, but the doctor said it wasn’t necessary. I was scheduled for surgery, and lived for 6 weeks thinking I had a form of cancer that would kill me.

I got a call 4 days later, and was told that my tumor had been initially misdiagnosed.

I woke up from the operation to find out the surgeons had stopped the surgery because of inconclusive frozen section results. I got a call 4 days later, and was told that my tumor had been initially misdiagnosed. The revised diagnosis was HPV-related squamous cell carcinoma. My prognosis was excellent, but I still had to undergo postoperative radiation therapy. 

That summer, I had 33 doses of radiation with accompanying chemotherapy. I lost 40 pounds in one month. I also had an operation to remove my lymph nodes, which left a 7-inch scar down my throat and over my collarbone. 

But through it all, I had a smile on my face. I was determined to remain positive no matter what. I have always been in very good shape. I love endurance events. In fact, my wife and I have done 70 marathons and 5 ironman triathlons. A few short months after my treatment, I was able to run the Philadelphia half marathon. 

Everything seemed to be going well. On the 5th anniversary of my remission, I went to my checkup thinking it would be my last one—but they found something in my throat. The doctors ordered an MRI and a PET scan. It revealed that my cancer had returned. I was told I’d need an operation which would split my jaw in half and remove the base of my tongue. I had a breakdown. I’m an actor and I figured such an operation would ruin my career. 

A cancer battle is a marathon, not a sprint. Never think about the 18 miles you have left to run.

I prepared as much as I could for the surgery, but it was far worse than I imagined. The operation itself wasn’t as bad as the infection that set in afterwards. I couldn’t sleep for weeks. I eventually developed pneumonia and felt like I was fighting for every breath. I lost a significant amount of muscle weight from being bedridden. During this time, the outlook I had developed from doing endurance events was a great asset. I was able to divide up each day into manageable segments in my mind, just as I would during a marathon.

Despite the terrible things I went through after my surgery, I’m very grateful to be alive and cancer-free. I may not be able to beat out the next actor for a role just yet, but the important thing is that I can still communicate. The outpouring of support I received throughout my journey also gave me a newfound appreciation for the extraordinary friends I have in my life. I still go through all of their emails, cards and Facebook messages whenever I’m feeling down. 

Most of all, I’m excited about the future. In fact, I just signed up to run the New York City Marathon in November and booked an acting role in an upcoming national commercial. 

If I could give one piece of advice to patients currently struggling with cancer, it would be to think about what you can do in the moment to feel your best. A cancer battle is a marathon, not a sprint. Never think about the 18 miles you have left to run. Instead, think about how you can feel your best during the mile that you’re running now.