Stage IV salivary gland cancer survivor: How proton therapy saved my career

It’s difficult to say that someone is “the best” at something, especially when it comes to sports. How do you determine the No. 1 golfer? Since it’s based on performance, it might be one person this week, and a different one the next.

But when it comes to cancer treatment, I think there’s a clear leader: MD Anderson. I’d always heard it was the No. 1 cancer treatment center in the world. But I don’t think I really understood what that meant until I was diagnosed with stage IV salivary gland cancer in August 2015.

My salivary gland cancer diagnosis

I discovered I had cancer after going to my dermatologist about a little bump on my neck. It was just below my left ear, and I thought it was a swollen lymph node caused by a sinus infection.

But antibiotics didn’t shrink it, and my dermatologist didn’t like the look of it, so he sent me to a local head and neck specialist. That doctor ordered an MRI, which revealed a two-inch tumor on my parotid gland. It was wrapped around a major nerve that controls the facial muscles. I had stage IV mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a very rare type of salivary gland cancer.

How I came to MD Anderson

I was beyond fear when I got that news. A quick internet search showed the survival rates for my type of cancer were staggeringly bad. And mine was far enough advanced that even my specialist said I needed to go to a bigger cancer center for proper treatment. He referred me to a facility in Chicago, where I grew up. I had surgery there to remove the tumor and some nearby lymph nodes.

The procedure was complex, and I knew it might not be possible to get all the cancer out. So I asked my surgeon to focus more on preserving my sensory functions than on removing the cancer completely. As a person who watches other people play golf and talks about it on TV for a living, it’s pretty critical for me to be able to speak and hear.

The surgeon did a great job. But he said it was like trying to remove a meatball from the bottom of a bowl of spaghetti, without damaging any of the noodles. Some remnants of the cancer had almost certainly been left behind. He said I needed proton therapy to kill it. Unfortunately, his facility didn’t offer that treatment. So, I went to the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center.

Why I decided to have proton therapy

At MD Anderson, I met first with oncologist Dr. Charles Lu, radiation oncologist Dr. Steven Frank and surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Gershenwald to discuss my options. They said that chemotherapy may or may not be effective against my cancer, so I didn’t pursue that. Radiation therapy might’ve worked, too, but it may have prevented me from chewing my food normally, much less talking on live TV.

We all agreed that proton therapy was the best option. I had 31 treatments over a six-week period. I haven’t had any problems with eating, speaking or swallowing since. And my dry mouth issues are so minor, I’m almost embarrassed to mention them.

Why I’m proud to be a part of the MD Anderson team

Treating cancer is a lot like playing golf, in that there are two stages to it: the planning and the execution. But whereas golf is an individual sport, cancer requires a team. Once I saw how good my MD Anderson team was at planning my treatment, I knew that their execution was going to be equally as good. So, it’s no surprise that the care I received was second to none.

I’m now approaching my third anniversary of being cancer-free. And not a day goes by that I don't think about that. But every day is an anniversary for me. Just getting up in the morning and realizing the second chance I’ve been given makes me appreciate life all the more.

I’m convinced the reason I’m still here is because of MD Anderson’s team approach. Seeing first-hand how well its doctors work together gives me a sense of pride — not just to be a cancer survivor, but to be a part of the team that’s Making Cancer History®.

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