Don’t forget to keep living
Jimmie “Hooty” Wade was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer at the young age of 17. Even radiation therapy treatments every weekday for nearly 7 weeks couldn’t keep this sophomore out of school or away from the baseball field. Through everything, he had the support of his parents, teachers and coaches. He stayed involved in the sport and now, cancer-free since 2008, he’s still playing ball whenever he can as a bullpen pitcher for a local independent professional baseball team.
I was diagnosed with early-stage salivary gland cancer, a rare disease usually diagnosed in people older than 60 — I was only 17. Because it was so rare, my parents and I decided we needed a specialist and felt very lucky to find one not far from home. He told us that I could either have surgery first, followed by radiation and possibly chemotherapy, or jump right into radiation. Surgery would allow the doctor to see more clearly if the cancer had spread, determine a more accurate stage, and remove as much of the surrounding tissue as he thought necessary.
My parents and I discussed the options and we decided on surgery. The surgeon removed two-thirds of my parotid gland and 13 lymph nodes from my neck. Thankfully, all the margins came back clear; the cancer had not spread. The surgeon was confident he’d successfully removed all of the cancer and because surgery went so well, radiation therapy became a choice. Radiation would help to ensure there were no remaining cancer cells. I was young and otherwise healthy so I would be able to better tolerate any side effects. The surgeon encouraged me to get the radiation to prevent recurrence and I agreed. I would receive 33 external-beam radiation treatments.
I went for treatment five days a week, Monday through Friday, and had weekends to recover. I would go to the hospital every day after school and then when I was up for it, I would go to evening baseball practice. Every time I went in, I had to be positioned exactly right, so they made a mask with lots of holes in it that covered my head and ears and went down to my Adam’s apple. The nurses would set the table up, I’d lie lie down and they’d place the mask on my face and secure it in place. They moved the machine around my head to hit the cancer from three different angles. Treatment only took about 15 to 20 minutes, and I was always able to drive myself home.
I lost a lot of weight after surgery, could no longer produce saliva on the left side of my mouth and lost some feeling for a while on that side of my face. Radiation caused mouth sores and blisters, chapped lips and hair loss. I also had what looked like a sunburn but aloe helped, and I made sure to wear sunscreen every day to prevent any additional burns. I did experience fatigue that would hit me suddenly. I remember lying down in my teacher’s office for a minute after gym and sleeping for hours.
One of the hardest parts of my cancer journey wasn’t the surgery or the radiation or the grueling treatment schedule. It was feeling like people looked at me differently. My friends didn’t know what to say, peers didn’t want to ask questions, coaches wondered. I still have trouble talking about it sometimes because I feel like knowing I had cancer changes the way people view my life and my story. I joined a support group a few years ago. Everyone else was over 40, so it was a little weird. The support, however, was and is great, and being able to talk about it without feeling that people are looking at me funny has helped me become more comfortable with myself.
Cancer is something that I had, something that affected me and changed my life, but it’s not who I am. Remember to still be you, even with cancer. Don’t let it get you down; it’s so much harder to get yourself back up if you do. And do what you love now while you know you can. There are no guarantees in life, so take advantage of the here and now. I’ve been cancer-free since 2008. I play ball as often as I can, and my family and I have a renewed faith in God. Yes, people can die from cancer, but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Don’t forget to keep living.
Second Opinions Save Lives
Dr. Henry Farkas worked much of his life as an emergency room physician and hospice physician. He was familiar with the impact cancer can have on the body so, when he had a metastatic lung cancer recurrence in 2008, he accepted his terminal illness and he and his wife moved out to California to be close to their daughters during what he believed would be the last few months of his life. A visit to a local oncologist, however, led him to life-saving treatment with a newer type of radiation therapy that had recently become available at the facility. He continues to have clear follow-up scans to date.
I had oligometastatic Stage IV lung cancer with tumors in both lungs, two places in the base of my neck, and one place in my brain. I was originally diagnosed in 2006 and treated surgically to remove the lower lobe of my left lung. The tumor had developed behind my heart, against the aorta, but the surgeon was able to remove it all, and my post-treatment CT was clean.
Then, in 2008, a follow-up CT showed three new tumors in each of my lungs and a metastatic tumor in my brain. I underwent highly focused radiosurgery to treat the brain tumor. I began taking erlotinib (Tarceva) as palliative therapy. It was designed to give me a few extra months of life without causing serious side effects. I was also offered palliative radiation therapy to my lungs but declined because the radiation could cause significant damage to my heart.
My wife and I decided to spend my last few months in California closer to our two daughters and six grandchildren. We rented an apartment in Los Angeles near one of our daughters, and I was able to find a lung oncologist near our new home.
He kept me on erlotinib (Tarceva) for a few months but, unfortunately, the tumors began to grow again. The drug was causing side effects that had already bothered me so with the new progression, we decided to stop the treatment. We then found two new tumors at the base of my neck, one on each side. That’s when the oncologist suggested chemotherapy and radiation therapy, not as palliative care, but with the goal of curing my advanced lung cancer. Normally, you don't treat Stage IV lung cancer with curative intent because the treatment itself is likely to cause side effects that reduce quality of life in what may be the last few months that a patient has. And you don’t want to take that risk if you don’t know if therapy will work.
I explained to him that I had already declined palliative radiation because it could lead to congestive heart failure and, from my work in hospice care, I knew I did not want to battle both diseases near the end of my life. He informed me that his center had just installed the next generation of radiotherapy equipment. With the new technology, they could more precisely target the lung tumors, even those very close to my heart, to the point that the risk of damage to healthy tissues was minimal.
I agreed to the treatment with curative intent. Six weeks later, my tumors started to disappear. My last cancer treatment was on September 25, 2008. My scans have been clean ever since.
The message I want to convey is that if radiation therapy is an option for you, make sure you are at a cancer center that is using the latest technology because it can make a huge difference. A second opinion could save your life, no matter what the predicted outcome.