Author: Adam Kovac

An army veteran and personal trainer had to learn to eat and drink again after what he thought was tonsillitis turned out to be oral cancer in his tongue, tonsils and lymph nodes.

Lee Webb, 52, told The Mirror he had avoided doctors for 20 years until summer 2021, when he was recovering from a bout with COVID-19. But when tonsillitis symptoms persisted, he said he realized something else was going on.

“I had internal bleeds and I was taken to the hospital for that. It was my first time in the ambulance, first time touching base with the (National Health Service) after many, many years,” Webb said. “They told me to visit the ear, nose and throat department but I never received an appointment letter because it went to my old address. That just shows how long I didn’t see doctors. A few months later, around October, I had a second bout of what I thought was tonsillitis, but also I noticed a lump in my neck. That’s when I started being concerned.”
While that lump appeared in October, 2021, Webb said his oral cancer diagnosis was delayed to February as the healthcare system was still struggling with the pandemic.

“For over a month I tried to make an appointment with the GP,” he said. “All I heard was that the lines were broken. Keep trying. In January, I thought it was a third bout of this thing, but the lump was getting bigger. I decided to go to the GP, but they refused to let me in.”

Finally, Webb went to the doctor’s office and when he was told he must take a PCR test and wait three days, he insisted on having someone examine him in the parking lot.

“She noticed I couldn’t open my mouth, when normally you can open it for about 30 milliliters – same as three or four fingers – she could barely put one in. The next thing she said you need to see a doctor the next day, and I did,” he said. “But after the blood tests came out negative, around two weeks after I went to the nose, ear and tongue department. I said my GP thinks it is a cyst and then I just heard it’s something more serious.”

Subsequent biopsies and an MRI resulted in the diagnosis of stage three oral cancer in his tongue, tonsils and lymph nodes. Despite a good prognosis, Webb had a moment of panic.

“The doctor said it’s curative, I missed the word. My brain didn’t take that into consideration, I thought I will die. I had a 75 per cent chance of survival.”

Doctors told Webb the cancer was a result of the human papillomavirus virus (HPV).

The Link Between HPV And Oral Cancers
While HPV is most commonly associated in the public with cervical cancer in women, it has also been linked to oral cancer. For instance, actor Michael Douglas has been vocal in expressing his belief that his bout with tongue cancer was due to HPV. Luckily, a vaccine for HPV is widely available.

While the HPV vaccine is traditionally administered to adolescent girls, teenagers, and young women, older adults who don’t have HPV can still very much benefit from receiving it as well.

The HPV vaccine is approved in the U.S. for people up to age 45, though it’s recommended that children get it before they become sexually active, as the vaccine can prevent a lot of these cancers. Gardasil 9 protects against nine strains of HPV – including the strains most likely to cause cancer and genital warts. But it can’t provide protection if a person has already been exposed to HPV. That’s why doctors recommend it for children as young as 9.

In an earlier interview, Dr. Allen Ho, a head and neck surgeon at Cedars-Sinai, explains the potential impact of HPV. He says, “The vast majority of humans in the U.S., both men, and women, will eventually get infected with human papillomavirus. The important thing to know about HPV,” says Dr. Ho, “is that there are many different strains, and only a couple of them tend to be more cancer-inducing.”

“Probably less than 1% of the population who get infected happen to have the cancer-causing virus that somehow their immune system fails to clear, and over 15 to 20 years [it] develops from a viral infection into a tumor, and a cancer,” explains Dr. Ho.

Getting Back In Shape
Webb began treatment for his cancer in May, 2022, including chemotherapy. While in peak physical shape at the start, he said he lost over 30 lbs and had to be admitted to the hospital for being underweight.

“I’ve had to learn how to drink and eat again and have only been eating again since the middle of June and still some (20 lbs) from where my weight was pre-cancer. Imagine being punched in the jaw – that’s how I feel most of the days. There is loads of fatigue,” he said.

Luckily, Webb said he’s had the support of friends and family during his recovery. As part of his effort to get better, he undertook a physical challenge: cycling the 100 miles between the four hospitals where he received treatment.