Tonsil cancer survivor fights HPV stigma

At age 62, Tom Jackson was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The diagnosis is common among
men his age, so he took it in stride.

But shortly before Tom was scheduled to have his prostate removed,
he discovered a lump on his neck. A biopsy and CT scan of the lump
revealed that Tom also had squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil caused by
the human papillomavirus (HPV).

“Prostate cancer for any man over the age of 60 is acceptable,” Tom
says. “You know it’s going to happen. You have to deal with it.
However, HPV cancer, for anybody, but especially for a man over the
age of 60, is unexpected. My first thought was, ‘How did this happen?’”          

John Papadopoulous, M.D., Tom’s urologic
oncologist at MD Anderson in
, recommended he leave the prostate cancer untreated for the
time being and focus on his tonsil cancer treatment. Under the care of
Charles Lu, M.D., Tom underwent a combination of
chemotherapy and radiation to treat the tonsil cancer with oncologists
Charles Lu, M.D., and Sunil Patel, M.D.; radiation oncologist Gregory Chronowski, M.D.; and surgeon Kristen B. Pytynia, M.D.

Learning to walk, talk and eat again

Tom’s treatment left him feeling completely broken. He recalls
returning home unable to do many of the things he could before
treatment. For example, before treatment he ran daily. After
treatment, he came home using a walker.

Tom recalls the moment he knew he’d beat this. “It was a great joy
in my life when I could walk from my front door and touch the front
door of the house across the street, by myself, without falling down,”
he says.

The hardest side effect for Tom to overcome was the damage to his
salivary glands caused by the radiation treatment. This made talking
and tasting food difficult. He needed a speech therapist to help him
learn to talk and eat again.

“I was a champion orator in college,” Tom boasts. “After treatment,
I needed a speech therapist to help me learn how to talk again. I’m an
elected board member for Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School
District. Imagine what that does to your psyche when you’re talking to
people and gibberish comes out.”

Raising awareness about the HPV vaccine

Now three years removed from treatment, Tom has made it his mission
to educate people on HPV-related cancers.

“There was some doubt I’d make it two years, even with treatment,”
Tom admits. “However, it’s incumbent for me to tell people that this
was an HPV-caused cancer, and that cancers like mine can be prevented
with the HPV vaccine.”

Fighting back against HPV stigma

As Tom has learned, there’s still a stigma surrounding HPV, and that
can make it hard to talk to others about his HPV-related cancer.

When he does, he notices that they often become uneasy. He feels
most people don’t understand what HPV is or how you get it.

“The more myself and others with HPV-related cancers talk about it,
the more it will educate and help defeat the stigma that surrounds
HPV,” Tom says. “We have to defeat the stigma in order to get parents
to understand that vaccination of their children is very important.”

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