Why I support the HPV vaccine after my tonsil cancer treatment

When an ear, nose and throat doctor confirmed that I had tonsil cancer in October 2016, it came as something of a relief. I know that probably sounds strange. But compared to the other types of cancers I’d been worried I might have, this one didn’t seem so bad.

My doctor told me the tumor he’d found wasn’t very big and was clearly visible through a scope. He also said it was in an easily accessible location, so it should be fairly simple to remove. Still. It was cancer. And it was expected that I would need to have surgery and either chemotherapy or radiation therapy to get rid of it.

Finding out my cancer had been caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) — which can now be prevented with the HPV vaccine — was surprising.  

Teeth cleaning leads to tonsil cancer diagnosis

My dentist (who is also my sister-in-law) is the one who discovered the lump in my neck. I hadn’t noticed any symptoms, but she always feels around my neck during a teeth cleaning. And in September 2016, she found a lump on the left side of my neck that she didn’t remember being there before. She suggested that I watch it for a week, and have it looked at by my regular physician if it didn’t go away.

My doctor, who confirmed that the lump had not been there during my annual physical in May, ordered an ultrasound. When the results showed a swollen lymph node in my neck, he referred me to an ear, nose and throat doctor. That specialist examined me with a scope in his office and ordered a biopsy of the tumor he found. When the results came back, I learned I had stage II squamous cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that can form anywhere in the body. In this case, the cancer had started out in my tonsil and then spread to a nearby lymph node.

My tonsil cancer treatment

There was no question I’d go to MD Anderson for my tonsil cancer treatment, based on the strength of MD Anderson’s reputation. Since I live near the Texas Medical Center Campus and work in downtown Houston, it was also very convenient.

At MD Anderson, I met with Dr. Michael Kupferman. He and a team of doctors recommended surgery to remove my left tonsil and about 35 lymph nodes from my neck. I had that procedure done on Nov. 14, 2016. Initially, we’d both hoped the surgery was all I’d need, but the biopsy results showed that the cancer had spread to more than just one lymph node.

At that point, Dr. Kupferman recommended simultaneous courses of radiation therapy under Dr. Clifton Fuller and chemotherapy under Dr. Renata Ferrarotto. I started both on Dec. 27, 2016, had 6 rounds of weekly chemo and 33 daily radiation treatments. I rang the bell to mark my last radiation therapy treatment on Feb. 10, 2017.

Dealing with treatment side effects

I’ve shown no evidence of disease since completing my treatment, but I’m still dealing with side effects.

I can’t eat spicy foods because they still burn my throat. And when I get tired, I fumble over my words because Dr. Kupferman removed a small part of my tongue during the surgery, too. My mouth gets pretty dry, so I drink a lot of water. My neck is also very stiff, so I have to do stretching exercises regularly.

But I’m not complaining. Many other people have it worse than I do, and I’m grateful to be cancer-free. I just wish I hadn’t had cancer at all. If the HPV vaccine had been available when I was a kid, I might have avoided cancer altogether.

Get your kids vaccinated

When I found out my cancer was caused by HPV, my reaction was, “What’s that?” Because I honestly didn’t know. After the doctor told me, I felt kind of embarrassed. But he said about 95% of men my age have been exposed to it, so it’s actually very common.

The body usually clears HPV infections on its own. But when it doesn’t, HPV can cause several types of cancer. That’s what happened to me. And that’s why my wife and I got our boys their shots right away — and we suggested that friends and co-workers do the same.

I don’t go around wearing a sign or anything, but I felt it was important to share why I was encouraging people to get their kids vaccinated. Four or five people in my office have already gotten their kids vaccinated. I consider that a good start.

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