In August of 2018, I noticed that something was wrong with the right side of my tongue. I bit it while chewing, but I noticed that it still wasn’t healing over time and it looked very unusual.
I had an appointment with my general practitioner and this issue concerned her. She warned me that it could be anything from a severe cold sore to cancer and within two hours of seeing her, she had me in to see an ENT doctor. I knew the situation was serious by how quickly things were happening, but I wasn’t prepared for the results. Seven days after my initial appointment with my general practitioner, I received my biopsy results from the ENT. The results tested positive for squamous cell carcinoma. Turns out, my unhealed tongue bite was a malignant tumor.
My wife was with me when I was diagnosed, and we were in shock. We had the last appointment for the day and as soon as we got outside, we sat down on the steps and stared at each other in disbelief. The diagnosis made no sense to us. I was in excellent health. I had zero contributing factors and I was in top physical condition. As a matter of fact, we had recently run a half-marathon and were planning on running another one the following month. I remember sitting there and feeling grief. Grief for myself, for us and our kids.
We eventually got up and walked to our cars and my wife said “I’ll see you at home,” but I told her that I would actually see her later that night. I still had a scheduled work meeting at 8pm. She expected me to come home, but I told her I wouldn’t cancel my meeting. It was right then that I knew that I just needed to keep moving forward. I returned to my office and had my meeting. I then called my brothers and parents to tell them I had cancer. Telling my parents was very difficult for me, and it was just as hard for them to hear the news. Within days, I had a CT scan, a PET scan and I met with my new clinical team to discuss what was next.
Between my diagnosis and surgery, I really had no idea what it meant to have a cancer diagnosis, and I had no appreciation for what it meant to be a cancer survivor. Even after being told what surgical procedures I might undergo, it didn’t really sink in. But I realized later what had happened. I heard the words “survive,” “recover” and, with appropriate therapy, “regain my clarity of speech.” After hearing that, I think I just blocked everything else out.
I had surgery in October of 2018. The tumor was removed from my tongue, which was reconstructed using tissue and skin grafted from my wrist. Skin from my thigh was then grafted to my wrist and lymph nodes were removed from my neck. I only realized the extent of my surgery after I awoke. I was banged up from top to bottom. I had a feeding tube in my nose and a tracheostomy. It was instantly the worst thing I ever experienced. I was told that I would need to stay in the hospital for seven days to recover. I remember looking at the clock on the wall of my room thinking that I couldn’t survive the next five minutes, let alone seven days.
My family spent every day with me in the hospital. My friends would also visit me. I had one close friend on the SWAT team working a case near the hospital, so whenever he had a break he would come visit. He always wore his gear when visiting. We joked that everyone thought that I was either protected or a criminal. It was pretty funny. Joking consisted of me writing on my dry erase board or communicating via facial expressions and hand gestures. My seven days ended, and I could not have done it alone. No matter how independent you are, you have to put that aside and let people take care of you. I was surprised by the outpouring of love and emotion I received. It was a little overwhelming, but was so nice to have.
A few weeks after surgery, I began radiation. I had 30 treatments focused on my mouth and neck. I went through my first 8 treatments feeling like a champ. I had no side effects. However, treatments 9 and 10 hit me like a Mack truck. Every side effect materialized at once. I had mouth sores, burning sensations, saliva issues, and pain when eating and swallowing. The mouth is such a critical part of your body, especially for nutrition and communication. I was prescribed the appropriate pain medication for the side effects, but I was very reluctant to take it. I had never experienced any issues with addiction, but I was scared. My weight began to drop quickly, and I noticed a loss in clarity of my speech because I wasn’t using my mouth. I realized that the pain medication was necessary, and you don’t get a prize for toughing it out. The medication helps you receive adequate nutrition, not only to survive, but to thrive. The medication helped me eat. For two months, my only job was to try to eat, and boy was it unpleasant. At this point, I was starting to understand what it meant to be a cancer survivor.
I’ve never been a stranger to challenge. I worked a construction job in Manhattan while going to college. I went to law school and passed the bar exam in two states. Over a period of 15 years, I built a successful law practice. Those challenging experiences taught me an important lesson. No matter what the circumstances, you can control how you deal with them. I had no control over my cancer or the effects of the treatment, but I had complete control over how I would deal with it. I made the conscious decision to approach treatment with a positive attitude and a sense of humor. I always had a smile on my face and thanked people who cared for me. This made a remarkable difference in my journey. My positivity was returned in kind during each treatment and at every single follow up to this day.
You are going to learn some things about yourself throughout this process. When I get tired, it is hard for me to pronounce certain words. I still don’t have normal saliva production, so I can’t go anywhere without taking something to drink with me. I can’t eat certain foods. Beer and ice cream don’t taste normal. Not tasting beer and ice cream is a big deal so I’m not going to pretend like that’s okay, but in the grand scheme, it’s a small sacrifice. But the big picture is that while some things might not be perfect, you will recover, and many things do return to normal. Also, it is important to remember that for each tough moment you experience, someone else could be going through something way worse.
The physical and emotional pain that my family and I experienced together—along with the perspective that we’ve gained from it—influences our daily decisions. My wife and I really focus on what is important to us: our kids and the people around us. We also appreciate each other much more. Professionally, I am much more selective about what I work on and who I work for. Ironically, while my cancer cast a pall upon us for some time, I think we are all happier. Our fingers are crossed that it stays away!