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Unexpected Diagnosis: Patient Michael Heyman on the Link Between Throat Cancer and HPV

Thursday, May 14, 2015 10:22 AM

Patient Michael Heyman had no idea that a routine visit to the dentist the day after Christmas would turn into a cancer diagnosis exactly one week later. After his dentist noticed a lump on the left side of his neck, Michael saw his doctor, who, despite his overall good health and active lifestyle, referred him to an ear, nose and throat doctor for further tests. Surprisingly, for both doctor and patient, the diagnosis would be stage IV oropharynx (throat) cancer. Lab tests would confirm that his cancer was related to the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Michael shares his story of diagnosis and recovery and what he discovered about the HPV-related throat cancers, currently on the rise in men, and why he recommends all parents ensure their children are vaccinated: 

What was your reaction when your doctor said “cancer?”
I know it sounds like a cliché but it was surreal, like he was talking to someone else. Two days before he had said it was likely a slow-growing benign tumor, which he based on other factors in my medical history. He said he would remove it at my convenience. So, a cancer diagnosis was shocking. 

We looked up the type of cancer on the Internet and this same cancer is often skin based so for an hour before our visit, we were concerned but we had no idea that if left untreated, my cancer would be fatal. We didn't look much up on the Internet after that. There were too many stories and we quickly learned that every cancer case is different.

Your throat cancer was caused by HPV. Before your diagnosis, did you know that HPV-related throat cancers were on the rise?
I was largely unaware of throat cancers or HPV. My two older sons were never vaccinated because the HPV vaccine wasn't available. Our youngest son was vaccinated. I did know something about Michael Douglas and mouth cancer but not HPV. Of course, now, we are quite versed in many aspects of throat cancer and actively trying to educate parents, grandparents and friends about the importance of the vaccine, and awareness of the dangers of snuff and chewing tobaccos, which increase chances of mouth cancers by as much as ten times. 

What would you tell parents who are hesitant when it comes administering the HPV vaccine to their children? 
My 88-year-old mother had to drive her 61-year-old son to radiation treatments every day for seven weeks. I hope that image and the knowledge they can prevent this type of cancer will help them make the right choices for their kids now. The HPV vaccine must be given to every boy and girl prior to sexual activity. Don’t wait until it is too late. And, there are no known adverse effects. 

What was the most challenging aspect of your treatment? 
A friend who had gone through treatment told me that it would be a day-by-day, hour-by-hour struggle. I kept a journal of the first six months of cancer and treatments. I guess it was a way to complain without bothering my wife. On the rare occasions that I go back and read entries, it’s very painful, near impossible to remember.

The most challenging part was the trying to drink four bottles of Ensure each day. My tongue was so badly burned from treatments that an hour of preparation only allowed me to get a couple sips down but I had one goal—avoid a feeding tube. I managed to do that but just barely. 

What advice would you give to others newly diagnosed with a throat cancer caused by HPV?
Connect with others who have gone through this and do it early. It helped to know what we had to get through at every stage. We weren’t alone so very little surprised us.

What’s next for you and your family? 
This past week I had all of my one-year scopes and scans, and all were clean. My short-term goal is to be clear of this cancer for another two years, which would give me three years cancer-free after treatment. After that, I'm doubtful that this cancer will return though I have a 30% chance that it could. I choose to focus on the 70%. 

Taking my illness as a sign, I haven’t returned to work and closed my business of 19 years. We decided that it made more sense to live a stress-free life out West in the mountains. I haven't missed work or business and had no trouble letting go, maybe because of the cancer.

What did you learn during this process? 
There are a lot of huge things over which we have no control so I try not to stress about the little things. Also if I have a list of things to do and something more fun pops up, that's what I do. Lots of stuff gets deferred but it turns out most of it doesn't matter much.

Also, I try to reach out and be available when someone asks me to talk to others about cancer. This has happened a few times already and resulted in new relationships. A survivor friend told me that it would be impossible to thank all the people who helped, supported and cared for me during treatment and recovery and that the best way to thank them would be to help others in the same position I was 16 months ago. 

Mr. Heyman underwent treatment at the NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center. His treatment plan was supervised by head and neck cancer expert Dr. Bruce Brockstein (pictured above). For more information on the Kellogg Cancer Center, click here