Stage IV nasopharyngeal cancer survivor: I’m almost completely back to normal

Looking at me now, people would never suspect I’d ever had anything serious wrong with me. I walk five miles every day and take the stairs up to my third-floor apartment with ease.

But in April 2018, I was so weak I could barely get out of bed. And I couldn’t take more than a few steps without sitting down to rest. At the time, I was undergoing nine weeks of very strong chemotherapy for stage IV nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare type of head and neck cancer and skull base tumor. I still had 33 doses of radiation therapy and more chemotherapy to go.

When I’d been diagnosed a few months earlier, the tumor in my skull base was so large I could barely hear out of my left ear. My left eye had turned completely inward.

My recovery since then has been nothing short of remarkable. My vision and hearing are both back to normal. I’m about 95% back to where I was, in terms of strength and weight. My scans have shown no evidence of disease since August 2018. And I owe this incredible recovery to Dr. Shirley Su, a head and neck surgeon and skull base specialist, and her team at MD Anderson.

My nasopharyngeal cancer symptoms

I first started showing skull base tumor symptoms in late 2017. My left ear felt clogged when I got back from a business trip. But that can happen sometimes on long flights, so I thought nothing of it.

After a few weeks, the blockage still hadn’t cleared up. Over the course of the next month, I went to a walk-in clinic, my regular doctor and an ear, nose and throat specialist. All of them saw fluid in my ear, but thought it was due to an infection caused by a virus. I was prescribed three different courses of antibiotics. None of them did any good.

Then, my left eye started turning inward toward my nose, and my eyelid started closing. I went back to my regular doctor, because I knew this wasn’t just an ear infection. He drained some fluid from my ear and ordered an MRI. The next day, a team of doctors told me the results: I had stage IV nasopharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma — a type of skull base cancer. There was a golf-ball-sized tumor in my skull.

My nasopharyngeal cancer diagnosis

I’ve lived in Houston for 18 years, so I was aware of MD Anderson’s reputation: it is recognized as one of the top cancer hospitals in the world. My doctor referred me to his former colleague there, Dr. Su. He called her the best doctor he’d ever worked with.

Dr. Su performed a biopsy first to confirm my diagnosis. She said my cancer was very advanced, but she and her team would do everything they could to help me.

My tumor was extremely unusual, in that head and neck cancers normally grow downwards. Mine had grown upwards into my skull. Because it was right behind my eye, it was dangerously close to a lot of vital nerves. That meant radiation therapy would be very tricky.

Dr. Su assured me she’d work closely with radiation oncologist Dr. Adam Garden, who would design radiation to target the tumor as precisely as possible. I also met with Dr. Renata Ferrarotto, who prescribed chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before radiation treatment.

My nasopharyngeal cancer treatment

My doctors were very honest about what to expect. They warned me they’d be giving me the strongest treatments they felt my body could handle. My response was, “If you think it’ll help, go ahead.” Because by this point, my left eye had closed completely. I couldn’t open it except by pulling apart the lids with my fingers.

During my first round of chemotherapy, I developed painful blisters on my throat and tonsils. That made eating and drinking virtually impossible. Dr. Garden prescribed numbing fluid, which allowed me to swallow. This helped a great deal. I also lost my hair and dropped 45 pounds. But the second and third rounds of chemotherapy went much better.

How my care team gave me hope

Aside from Dr. Su — who feels more like a family friend now than a doctor — I also received terrific support and encouragement from Jennifer Hess, a nurse practitioner at MD Anderson League City. My wife Maria and I saw Jennifer almost daily during my 33 radiation therapy sessions.

After a few weeks, she examined me and said, “Your eye is moving. I can see it underneath the lid.” This gave us hope that the treatment was actually working.

We saw Jennifer again a few weeks later and she came into the room dancing. She told us it was her “happy dance,” because my latest scan had shown the tumor was getting significantly smaller.

As radiation therapy progressed, my eyelid slowly started to reopen. Eventually, my eyeball rotated back into its original position. And every time we saw Jennifer, she appeared even happier than we were at the evidence of my improvement.

Everyone needs somebody to offer a little bit of hope. Jennifer certainly did that for us. There were so many days when we’d come in feeling very down, but we’d leave smiling. We never even dreamed it was possible to be where I am now. But she could see glimmers of hope, so we did, too. That made us feel like a million dollars.

My life after nasopharyngeal cancer

The neurologist who originally diagnosed me said I was going to lose my left eye and would be lucky to regain 80% of the function I’d enjoyed before cancer treatment.

But I still have both eyes and they work just fine. I have a little numbness in my fingers and toes, but it doesn’t stop me from doing anything. And the residual numbness on the left side of my face continues to improve.

I can’t really put into words how incredible my recovery has been. I went from not being able to see out of one eye or hear out of one ear to being almost completely back to normal. Last month, I even went swimming with sharks in Mexico. So, miracles can happen. I’m the proof.

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