In May a few years ago, I noticed my jaw locking. Around the time, I happened to be at the dentist and asked him about it. He said it was probably TMJ. In October, I went back to the dentist and said I still had swelling from TMJ. Right behind my ear, I had a little bump that I assumed was because of the TMJ. Right away my dentist said the swelling wasn’t what I thought, and recommended I see an ENT to get it checked out. After a needle biopsy, the ENT doctor came in. He barely sat down before he matter-of-factly told my wife and I that the results had come back as cancer. We were shocked and totally taken aback; it was a lot to take in.
My son was 4 years old at this point, and most of what he remembers is my scar. Any of the pictures he drew of his family in school had dad with a little red scar.
We decided to switch ENT doctors after that. My second doctor recommended a surgeon in New York City. That same day, I received a call from this surgeon. A month later, my scheduled surgery day arrived. It was a stressful day—after a 6-hour surgery I began the recovery process. I stayed in the hospital for 2 days. Although I requested vegetarian meals, by some mistake I ended up with a chicken leg for dinner. It turned out to be the best meal I could have asked for, and was serious foreshadowing for the rest of my cancer treatments. Throughout my cancer journey, chicken kept me going. After the many rounds of chemo and radiation, accompanied with big changes in my taste buds and appetite, chicken was a great staple that helped me maintain good nutrition and keep me sane.
When I got home, we set up a recovery center in the bedroom so I could relax and have a quiet place. I started chemo and radiation, ultimately undergoing 3 rounds of chemo and 35 sessions of radiation. Over the course of a month, I went to my radiation treatments daily. Each morning I would get fitted with a mask and go into the machine for a 20-minute session. Luckily, I didn’t have many of the side effects of chemo that people said I would; I was tired, but I didn’t have any nausea or sickness. During radiation, my skin got very dry. The treatment affected my taste buds a lot. Food tasted like cardboard—weird and unpleasant. It was hard to find foods to keep the weight on. At my lowest, I had lost 30 pounds. Chicken, mashed potatoes, and shakes helped me to be creative keeping weight on.
My parents were unfortunately in Florida during this time, but I had my wife, son, and dog. My son was 4 years old at this point, and most of what he remembers is my scar. Any of the pictures he drew of his family in school had dad with a little red scar. I was lucky to be home for all of this. My house was a sanctuary. In some sense, it was a blessing in disguise. I got to bring my son to daycare every day, something I never would have made time for otherwise.
Cancer was a lot of things, but it wasn’t an epiphany moment. It wasn’t a wake up call to say you don’t have much time left; I’ve always lived that way. I’ve always been motivated to follow my dreams and live life to the fullest. I do feel lucky that this was mostly an isolated incident, and that it worked out the way it did. For me, having a great doctor was instrumental. I credit a lot of my physical recovery to weekly acupuncture. What’s most important is finding support, experimenting, and finding what works for you. Everyone has a different experience and a different recovery.
30 Stories in 30 Days
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. For the next 4 weeks, we will post stories written by cancer survivors, caregivers and friends for our 30 Stories in 30 Days campaign. We hope their perspectives and insight will help others along their journey.