My journey with cancer began about
a week before Thanksgiving in 2013.
I tipped my head back to shave one
morning and noticed I had a small lump
in my neck. I kept feeling it for several
days so my wife told me to go and get
it checked out.
My family doctor sent me to an ear,
I was devastated. It felt as though my
nose, and throat (ENT) specialist at the
local hospital who ordered a CT scan
and a biopsy. The tests showed that the
lump was a lymph node in my neck that
was enlarged because of squamous cell
carcinoma, although they didn’t show
the source of the cancer.
world had stopped and that everything
else was just going on around me.
At that point, I wanted a second
opinion at a specialized cancer center,
so I went to Fox Chase Cancer Center
There they found that the primary
cancer was in my left tonsil. Tests on
a biopsy showed that the cancer was
caused by HPV [human papillomavirus].
It was a total shock to me. I knew that
my two daughters had received the HPV
vaccine growing up, but my son had not.
Right away, we got him vaccinated. I
know that not everyone is having
their children vaccinated, but I would
strongly recommend vaccination over
what I went through. I wouldn’t wish
my experience on anyone.
My initial treatment was a six-week
course of radiation. I also received
weekly infusions of cetuximab
(Erbitux). The cetuximab made me
break out in itchy pimples, but the side
effects of the radiotherapy were far
worse. It caused blisters in my mouth
and after about four treatments I
couldn’t eat anything. I lost 25 pounds
in weight, dropping below 170 pounds,
and I needed to drink seven Boosts a
day for three-and-a-half months to
maintain enough weight so as not to
need a feeding tube. It was grueling.
My first CT scan after the initial
treatment was in June 2014. They told
me there was a 6-millimeter spot in one
of my lungs but that I shouldn’t worry
about it because it could be anything.
Three months later, the next CT scan
showed that the spot had doubled in
size and other spots were now visible.
The cancer had metastasized to my
That was when the doctor told me that
if I continued with standard treatment
I had about a year to live. My wife and
I looked at each other and our heads
drooped. But a few minutes later, the
doctor started talking about clinical
trials. She told us that one of them was
an immunotherapy trial and there were
just two spots left. After thinking about
it for a day, I enrolled.
My first infusion of pembrolizumab
was in October 2014. I received it every
three weeks for two years; I’ve been off it
since September 2016. The only issue I’ve
had was I developed hypothyroidism,
but I take thyroid medication and it
causes me no problems.
I had my first scan after starting
pembrolizumab just before Christmas
of 2014. It showed that the tumors had
shrunk by 90 percent. I was amazed.
Two scans later, there was no evidence
of disease. Every scan since, including
my last one in May 2017, has shown the
Hopefully, things stay this way and
I can live my life. My wife and I have
been going through a book called, 1000
Places to See Before You Die, which she
gave me before my diagnosis. We’ve
been on an Alaskan cruise, and visited
Yellowstone National Park, the Calgary
Stampede, and Nashville. We can’t wait
for our next trip.
Maintaining funding for research
is very important to me. The initial
treatment I was on did not help me,
but a new immunotherapy did. It is
miraculous what it did, so let’s keep
the funding going and get this thing
knocked out of the way.
AMERICAN ASSOCIATION FOR CANCER RESEARCH 83
" It is miraculous what it [pembrolizumab] did … "
© AACR/Vera LaMarche