As a loving husband and devoted father, Earl always took his physical health seriously. He never smoked, scheduled annual physicals and went to the dentist regularly. He was doing everything he could to ensure that he would always be there for his family.
When his daughter complained of a sore throat one day, it's no surprise that Earl jumped at the chance to make it a teachable moment. He explained to his daughter that swollen lymph nodes often accompany a sore throat. As he was showing her how to check her lymph nodes, he noticed that a lymph node on the left side of his neck was enlarged.
While Earl thought this was odd, he decided to wait to talk to his doctor at his upcoming physical, which was just a few weeks away. At his physical, in early November, Earl's primary care physician confirmed that the left neck lymph node was enlarged and required a closer look.
A biopsy was scheduled for early January.
Earl's Diagnosis and Surgery
By the end of January, the results were back — Earl was officially diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a form of cancer that had spread into his lymph node. Earl's primary care physician directed him to an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist, who identified the primary cancer site at the base of his tongue. The ENT recommended immediate treatment and provided Earl with the names of several specialists in the DC area.
After researching these surgeons online, Earl chose to work with Stanley Chia, MD, Chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
At this appointment, Dr. Chia evaluated Earl's throat to confirm the primary cancer site was located at the left base of his tongue. He then ordered a PET-CT to make sure the cancer was isolated to only the tongue base and the lymph node in the left neck.
Once it was confirmed that the cancer had not spread beyond the lymph node, Dr. Chia explained to Earl that he was a prime candidate for robotic surgery. The base of tongue can be difficult to reach with standard surgical techniques, and the robotic approach is ideally suited to this approach. Surgery to remove the lymph nodes from the left side of his neck would be performed simultaneously.
Surgery was set for April 4, which was ideal timing for Earl, because it allowed him to keep his plans to spend his daughter's spring break with his family.
While Earl was nervous as his surgery date approached, he was pleased that Dr. Chia took the time to explain the process and answer all his questions, such as "What kind of scarring should I expect?" and "What are the side effects of surgery?"
Surgery was a success. Earl was able to talk the same day as his surgery. He began eating the day after surgery, and within a few weeks, Earl was eating normally again.
Evaluating His Treatment Options
While surgery was a success, Earl knew that he now had to determine if he would continue on with radiation treatment. Fortunately, the biopsy from surgery showed that the cancer was HPV positive, which meant it had a better prognosis than traditional smoking-related cancers. The biopsy report also confirmed that the surgery had successfully removed the cancerous cells in the tongue and neck.
Standard treatment for head and neck cancers after surgery often includes radiation treatment or even chemotherapy. Earl discussed his treatment options with Dr. Chia and Adedamola Omogbehin, MD, on the radiation team at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, and even sought a second opinion.
After evaluating all his options and taking a close look at the side effects associated with radiation treatment, Earl decided to forgo further treatment. He attributes his ability to avoid radiation treatment to early detection, as well as the success of his robotic surgery.
Today, Earl is glad to be a cancer survivor, and he has a new outlook on life. He says that the whole process happened very quickly, but that he was very happy with the honest and accurate information provided by Dr. Chia and Dr. Omogbehin.
Earl encourages others to pay close attention to their own personal health and not to be fooled into thinking it can't happen to them. He urges other to be proactive and to get anything that seems odd checked out as soon as possible.