Ralph Contrino

“While I was receiving radiation, I used a method of self-hypnotism, deep breathing exercises that would relax me. It helped put me into a trance-like state. During this period, I used mental imagery. I envisioned the radiation destroying the cancer cells, similar to the Pac Man video game. I targeted each cancer cell in my mind and zapped them.”

The year was 2001. At 54 years of age I felt healthy, energetic and motivated. I was busy promoting “Fine Wines” throughout the Northeast—lecturing at various culinary schools—visiting vineyards in many countries. My wife Susan was teaching elementary school and we had two daughters: our eldest attending college at Purchase and our youngest in junior high school busy with studies, sports, and piano lessons. Needless to say, we were a family constantly on the move. I realized and appreciated the extra burden my wife had when I traveled. Her burden would shortly be enormously expanded.

During the Spring my wife noticed a lump on my neck. I did not give it the concern that I should have, being too busy with business and all. As fate would have it, my wife was a patient of an ENT doctor in Manhattan. In June as my wife visited her doctor, she mentioned her concern about me. I followed up with a personal appointment. After my examination, the ENT helped initiate contact with an international expert in head and neck cancer, and Medical Advisor of the THANC Foundation. Obviously, there were concerns about my health that needed immediate attention.

I felt healthy! How could this be? There could be no argument. I was very ill

My first operation would explore and determine the primary mass, which was located at the base of the tongue. My surgeon took a biopsy of the neck and base of the tongue. Both areas revealed infiltrating squamous cell carcinoma. During this procedure a feeding tube and tracheal tube were inserted. Prior to the initial surgery, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon was consulted as a specialist regarding my dental condition. It was determined that no extractions were needed.

My body, mind, and spirit were numb. I had cancer! I did not feel sick. I did not have the normal symptoms. No sore throat, dental pain, raspiness, weight loss. I did have an ear ache that lasted only a few days. I felt healthy! How could this be? There could be no argument. I was very ill.

Three weeks later, major surgery was performed taking over 9 hours to complete. I underwent surgical resection of the tongue as well as neck dissection (lymph nodes removed), and repositioning of the internal jugular vein. My salivary glands were also affected. I was diagnosed with a T2N2, Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma. My surgeon and his team fought a great battle, performing brilliantly. I remember on his first round as I awoke from sleep, I was asked to open my mouth, stick out my tongue, and move it around. He smiled and told me to go back to sleep.

There is not enough praise that I can give to my surgeon. I was fortunate to have him. I see the good doctor every year for a follow-up. Upon leaving his office I am sure to say, “See you next year.”

Cleaning the tracheostomy stoma was also difficult for me as I was nervous manipulating it. I was nervous about many things I was experiencing

I should note that as I was recovering at the hospital, my wife stayed with me throughout my operation and ICU. I needed her care as I could not communicate. She became my “primary nurse.” I am so blessed to have her.

While recovering at home I had to deal with a tracheostomy and feeding tube. Not being able to consume solid foods that I enjoyed was difficult. Cleaning the tracheostomy stoma was also difficult for me as I was nervous manipulating it. I was nervous about many things I was experiencing.

I was to start radiation therapy. The therapy consisted of 33 sessions. While I was receiving radiation, I used a method of self-hypnotism, deep breathing exercises that would relax me. It helped put me into a trance-like state. During this period, I used mental imagery. I envisioned the radiation destroying the cancer cells, similar to the Pac Man video game. I targeted each cancer cell in my mind and zapped them.

As for faith, yes, I prayed—asking for assistance in my healing. Similar prayers were given during my two subsequent operations.

I had to learn how to swallow again. Pronounce words correctly. Use fluoride toothpaste and a tray for fluoride treatment. Dry mouth became an even more difficult problem. I am ever with my trusted bottle of water. I also carry NeutraSal dry mouth gum, which is of tremendous help. Biotene dry mouth spray and toothpaste helps also.

My dental history has always been a problem. I have had many cavities throughout my life. Too many candies, bonbons, cokes and popcorn when going to the Bijou Movies in Brooklyn on Saturday watching Cowboy Movies and endless cartoons. I also have had many root canals, cavities, and infections that have had to be addressed. So, the radiation therapy did not help my dental situation. I have had two occasions to have teeth extracted. Therefore, hyperbaric oxygen therapy became necessary. Each occurrence needed 30 treatments before the extraction procedure.

What was also important to me was compassion. A skilled person who is caring and dedicated and takes the time to know the patient, and vice versa in return

As a side note: before my oral surgeon began extracting the four teeth, I was given medication that was to put me into a relaxed state, almost carefree, no anxiety about the procedure that was to take place. Dreamlike… a warm and fuzzy place. Almost like being in Woodstock in the 1960s. If you know what I mean. I started reminiscing about my youth and playing in rock n’ roll bands. Bass guitar and vocals. I mentioned that I opened for the Isley Brothers, and met Jimi Hendrix in 1965 at Paterson National Armory. Smokey Robinson was doing vocals at that time. I sang “House of the Rising Sun” and “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones. I sort of recall saying all that. Later after the extraction I was becoming alert. Dr. Miller asked, did you really meet Jimi Hendrix?? We had a great laugh.

As a survivor of head and neck cancer, I have been blessed to have wonderful medical assistance. What I looked for was the most experienced, educated, skilled medical professional. What was also important to me was compassion. A skilled person who is caring and dedicated and takes the time to know the patient, and vice versa in return. I believe a bond of trust and understanding is so important.

I am pleased to be here today and give thanks. To the grace of God, doctors, family, and friends I am alive. I have a chance to tell my story about being cancer free since 2001. Maybe my story can give others with a similar condition hope. I believe many cancer patients do not share their experiences. Fighting cancer takes courage. Not only of the patients but also of doctors and their staff. We face a common enemy and goal. To conquer cancer.

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.