Author: George Brownfield
By the time I was diagnosed with HPV-related throat cancer in the summer of 2014, I’d been working as a senior systems analyst at MD Anderson for more than 20 years. I’d seen some of the incredible things our doctors were doing for people and was very aware of our reputation. So, there was never any doubt about where I’d be going for throat cancer treatment.
Once I was cancer-free, I realized I wanted to pay it forward. That’s why I started volunteering through myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one cancer support community for patients and caregivers. I also became a vocal advocate for vaccinating kids against HPV.
My throat cancer diagnosis
The ear, nose and throat specialist who initially diagnosed me was very timid about telling me why my lymph nodes were swollen. The only thing he ever really stated plainly was that I needed to get to MD Anderson.
As a result, I wasn’t even sure I had throat cancer until I met with surgical oncologist Dr. Amy Hessel. She was clear and precise about my diagnosis, but also very comforting. She told me that the cancer was stage I, and she knew exactly how to treat it. I was going to be fine. I felt such a sense of relief.
The cancer was mainly in my left aryepiglottic fold and piriform sinus. That’s the first part of the swallowing tube, which acts sort of like a funnel in directing food to the esophagus. Dr. Hessel told me that because of the cancer’s location, she wouldn’t be able to remove it surgically. If she did, I wouldn’t be able to eat or drink normally.
Instead, I had six rounds of chemotherapy under medical oncologist Dr. Merrill Kies (now retired), followed by 33 rounds of radiation therapy under radiation oncologist Dr. Brandon Gunn. I rang the bell to mark the end of my treatments on Feb. 25, 2015.
My throat cancer treatment side effects
I lost 20 pounds during radiation, because I couldn’t taste anything for about three months. I also had to take a day off work each week due to fatigue during chemotherapy.
But the most severe side effect I had during treatment was dry mouth, because my salivary glands weren’t working as well as they normally did. I still have some dry mouth today, though it’s much less severe and not that big of a deal anymore. I just have to drink plenty of water. I figure if that’s the worst thing I have to complain about, I’m doing pretty well.
Why I’m an HPV vaccine advocate
When you blow out a tire, figuring out what popped it is not nearly as interesting as getting to the side of the road safely. So, I was far more concerned with survival after my throat cancer diagnosis than I was with the fact that it had been caused by HPV.
Now, I’m a pretty vocal advocate for the HPV vaccine. The vaccine wasn’t around when I was a kid, but I wish it had been. Because my cancer treatment wasn’t as difficult as a lot of other people’s, but it wasn’t a cakewalk either. So, I tell everyone I meet who has adolescents and teenagers to get their children vaccinated. I made sure my own kids got vaccinated, too.
Why I joined myCancerConnection
My job at MD Anderson involves fixing servers and maintaining the many computer applications that help support our mission. I’m a small cog in very big machine, so I know I’m not going to directly save anyone’s life.
But I feel like if you’re not actively trying to do some good in this world, you’re missing an opportunity. That’s why I joined myCancerConnection almost immediately after finishing treatment. I wanted to share what I’d learned with other cancer patients. So far, I’ve talked to about six people.
I never really felt that same sense of dread that some cancer patients experience. But I know that many other people do. So, if I can give them hope or help to lessen their anxiety even a little, I want to do it.