Proton therapy spared me from side effects after a head and neck cancer diagnosis

When I first noticed what I thought was a swollen lymph node on the right side of my neck, I thought it was just an infection coming on. It didn’t hurt, but it was swollen.

The swelling went down a few days later and then would swell back up again. It did that for the next few months. By March 2020, it had not gone away, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I put off going to the doctor.

In June, I requested an ultrasound from my primary care doctor, followed by a biopsy and PET scan. They all came back negative. My ENT did notice a mass on the CT scan, and suggested that we watch and wait. Instead, I contacted MD Anderson for a second opinion.

Getting answers from MD Anderson’s Suspicion of Cancer Clinic

I chose MD Anderson because it’s ranked No. 1 in the nation in cancer care. We’ve lived all over the country, and every story that I’ve heard about MD Anderson always reiterated this reputation. I love my life and want to keep living it. I knew MD Anderson was the place I needed to be to do that.

I called to make my first appointment. The health information specialists helped me start the appointment process.

I flew to Houston from El Paso, Texas,  and moved into a furnished apartment. I had my first appointment on Sept. 17 with Dr. Gloria Iliescu at MD Anderson’s Mary Ann Weiser Suspicion of Cancer Clinic. Dr. Iliescu was calming and wonderful – exactly what’s needed in a doctor. She went above and beyond to set up my following appointments quickly and kept me updated.

My diagnosis: HPV-related head and neck cancer

After several tests and scans, my head and neck surgeon Dr. Neil Gross explained to me that I had a HPV-related head and neck cancer called oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma. Dr. Gross then reassured me he would cure me, not just put me in remission.

Dr. Gross and his physician assistant, Justin Sellers, were amazing. Dr. Gross answered every question I had and encouraged me to ask him anything.

I then met with my medical oncologist, Dr. Charles Lu, who explained everything in a way I could understand. Nurse Rosheer Seymour went out of her way to check on me. My radiation oncologist, Dr. Jay Reddy, was my rock and ended up being the physician I saw the most.

Dr. Gross and the tumor board decided that they could cure me with only chemotherapy and proton therapy. Surgery was not needed. Proton therapy would cause the tumor to disintegrate or, as my 11-year-old son said: “Blow up like the Death Star in Star Wars.”

Proton therapy is well-suited for patients with complicated tumors of the head and neck since it precisely paints the protons onto the tumor layer by layer. The treatment team can confine the tumor-damaging energy to target areas and work to protect normal structures such as the oral cavity and brainstem. This also helps keep side effects to a minimum.

My treatment for oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma

My mom flew in from Florida to stay with me at the apartment through treatments. This allowed my husband and son to remain at home in El Paso, so his schooling wasn’t disrupted. My sister also flew in to be with me. Having my family’s support in Houston was exactly what I needed to face cancer treatment in the best possible way.

I began proton therapy on Nov. 9, and my first round of chemotherapy was the following day. I received 33 daily proton therapy treatments and six rounds of weekly chemotherapy. Once they started the Benadryl drip for my chemotherapy, I would fall asleep for three hours. It ended up being my favorite time of the week.

I started to experience side effects from proton therapy around week three, as expected. I had some pain in my throat, tongue and mouth, as well as thick mucus in my throat. But I was able to eat soft solid foods and a lot of soup.

Dr. Reddy and the staff at MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center were very kind and helped me manage my symptoms. Physician assistant Lauren Palmer helped find the pain medication that worked best for me and had many suggestions to help my appetite changes. I would have had a different experience without her support.

I completed treatments on Dec. 22 and was excited to be home in time for Christmas.

Treating cancer as a full-time job

When undergoing my cancer treatments, I reminded myself that this was temporary. Having cancer feels like a full-time job – and it is.

But as I’ve learned, you can do anything for a finite amount of time. You must be positive and focus on the right now. Even though it is very hard, it will pass. So, do what the doctors say and follow directions from your care team to manage side effects, and you’ll get through this.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.