In the Fall of 2019, I noticed a bump on my cheek in front of my ear and went to my primary care physician. My doctor suspected the bump to be a swollen lymph node caused by an ear infection, and prescribed antibiotics. The bump continued to persist roughly seven months later but my doctor remained confident in his diagnosis.
Eager for a second opinion, I consulted an ENT specialist who proposed that the bump could be a tumor. An ultrasound-guided biopsy provided the most convincing evidence of cancer. The specialist referred me to a head and neck cancer surgeon who outlined his surgical approach. I trusted his expertise and consented to the procedure. On the day of my surgery, the surgical staff actually let me walk myself to the operating room. I did not expect that, but I enjoyed the liberty. I walked to the OR, hopped onto the operating table, and met everyone who would take care of me.
A week after the operation, my surgeon determined the lump to be cancerous and advised that I undergo additional surgery. I immediately felt all the blood rush out of my head. I felt like fainting. Taking note of my worry, he assured me that it was a highly curable disease. His confidence lifted my spirits, and I decided to follow his recommendation. The follow-up procedure included taking a tendon from my leg to support my jaw. They also removed one of my facial nerves, impairing my ability to control part of my face. This, in combination with the fact that my procedure had already been delayed due to COVID-19, proved a lot to handle.
The first night after the surgery, the nurse brought me the only remaining food from the kitchen—Brussels sprouts and chicken. I had never seen so many Brussels sprouts, and, truthfully, I wanted nothing to do with them! But I was happy to be able to eat chicken so soon after the surgery.
When I looked at myself in the mirror for the first time, I was taken aback. Sacrificing my facial nerve temporarily left my right eye wide open and my right cheek contorted. I calmed down, however, once I realized I was in good hands. The nurses carefully taped my eye shut at night so that I could comfortably sleep, and other staff checked on me routinely.
I started radiation treatment and chemotherapy shortly after the operation. As time went on, the regimens increasingly took a toll on my body. My skin broke down from the radiation, and the chemo wore me down further. I did everything I could to keep my weight up. I found it helpful to drink multiple protein shakes a day. It allowed me to get creative and mix in all sorts of fruits. I also insisted on continuing to work throughout it all. My work as a foreman can demand a lot from me physically, but I found Gatorade helped keep me hydrated and energized. Even when I didn’t feel well enough to go into the field, I’d work on paperwork and other managerial tasks. At the end of it all, I am proud to have maintained my routine.
When I look at myself now, I feel pretty great. My strength has returned, and I perform daily exercises with my mouth. I recently ordered a new tool that helps me open my jaw wider. I’m still working every day, and I returned to playing golf at the end of last summer with the same friends with whom I have been golfing for 30 years. Overall, I’m happy with how it all turned out. Sure, my lip droops slightly on my right side, but I can still smile!