I can remember exactly when I felt the lump in my neck for
the first time. My son, Jake (age 13) and I were driving
to Toronto to see a pre-season Raptor’s game. During
our conversation, I turned my head toward him and I felt
a swelling in my neck. I had a bit of a cold at the time
so I figured the swelling was a result of the cold. This
swelling, however, seemed a little extreme.
The lump was still in my neck, and my cold had dissipated.
I contacted my family doctor and he suggested it might still
be lingering from the cold, but we should keep an eye on
During the Christmas holidays my brother-in-law, who is a gastroenterologist, looked at my
neck. He suggested I make an appointment in the New Year
and get a specialist to look at the lump. Being busy at
work and not wanting to take any time off as I was coaching
a basketball team, I didn’t get down to the hospital
until January 20th.
I was examined by an internist and he suggested I have a
biopsy done on my neck. The biopsy was done that same day.
The doctor who performed the biopsy asked if I wanted to
stay and wait for the results. I gave him my cell number
and explained I had to leave to watch my son play in a basketball
cell phone rang and it was the Doctor. He informed me I
had squamous cell cancer. I quickly pulled over so as to
not loose the connection. I asked him a number of questions
to determine the severity of the cancer. The most important
question I had for him was would I survive? Too many tests
still had to be done, but he thought we might have caught
say I was numb was an understatement. My body broke out
in a cold sweat. I had to drive another half hour to watch
my son play basketball. When I arrived at the gym, I sat
beside a close friend during the game. I put on a really
good act throughout the game and on the way home with my
son. He kept asking me if everything was alright. My mind
was racing out of control, and I couldn’t carry a
conversation with anyone.
wife, Julie, was in Toronto conducting interviews to prospective
teachers, and she couldn’t be reached. When she arrived
home around nine p.m. she knew immediately when she walked
in the door that something was terribly wrong. I told her
the events of the day, and I just sat on the couch and cried.
I was healthy when I had left for work that morning, but
now I was staring face-to-face with cancer that evening.
February was a month of more tests and getting some answers
as to what was going to be ahead of us in the quest to fight
the cancer. The biggest challenge was to find the primary
sit of the cancer. The lymph glands on my neck had just
collected the cancerous cells. The renegade cells originated
elsewhere. A quadroscopy was scheduled at Mount Sinai Hospital
in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. This was performed by Doctor
Ian Witterick. This procedure is one in which the Doctor
biopsies different areas in the mouth to see if he can find
the primary site of the cancer. It’s like looking
for a needle in a haystack. Because there was nothing immediately
apparent, Ian’s expertise focused in on some regions
at the base of the tongue. The tumour was located at the
base of the tongue on the midline. After waking from the
anaesthetic my mouth was dry and my throat was the sorest
it had ever been. I took a tiny sip of water, and I can
still feel the pain when the water hit my mouth. It was
like a drop of water hitting a frying pan with hot oil in
it. My mouth was sore for a couple for weeks. The tumour
was a grade one tumour. Tumours are graded from one to four,
with four being the largest stage.
we knew where the primary site of the cancer was; it was
time for the radiation oncologist to take over. Doctor John
Waldron of Princess Margaret Hospital scheduled a series
of appointments over the next two weeks. He explained that
I would be receiving 25 radiation treatments to the head
and neck area. This was to shrink and eradicate the tumour.
Initially it was going to be 30 treatments, but he felt
I was young and strong enough to take a higher dose in a
shorter period of time. I told him I was good with that.
I had no idea what was involved in being treated by radiation.
Did I put my head in a machine, would it hurt etc? I soon
found out that it is a complicated procedure involving a
lot of preparation.
When you receive radiation to the head and neck your head
has to be stabilized to ensure the radiation beam is hitting
the targeted area every time. In the year 2000, the protocol
was to make a mask out of a transparent plastic material.
I have seen the masks being used today and they have come
a long way in six years.
hear we were in the basement of Princess Margaret hospital
waiting to have a mask made. I entered a room where they
put a Plaster of Paris material on my face and let it harden.
This would then be used to make the plastic mask. All of
us in the waiting room were in various stages of shock and
uncertainty. Whoever thought we would be in the basement
of a hospital getting a mask made so that I could then be
given doses of radiation to fight cancer?
having the mask made, there were numerous appointments for
x-rays, CT scans, and the ominous MRI. Of course, these
procedures were new to me. I had heard of them before but
I had no idea what they entailed. The x-rays were a piece
of cake. The CT scan was different as they injected a dye
into my blood stream and then scanned my body. Each test
took a day, factoring in the two hour commute to the hospital,
the waiting, the testing, and the commute back. You have
to gear down when you are sick. Delays happen, and if you
are impatient it becomes a long day.
MRI was a test. If you have an MRI done on another part
of the body it isn’t as confining as the MRI done
on the head and neck. You are placed on a table and secured
to the table so as to keep your head and neck from moving.
Ear plugs are inserted to muffle the sound of the magnets
when they start resonating. They are quite loud when the
machine gets going. The table moves you into a long encasing
tube where the top of the tube is inches if not centimetres
away from your face. You have to go to a different place
in your mind if you are at all claustrophobic. The technician
talks to you to assure you and comfort you throughout the
procedure. I imagined myself on a tropical island basking
in the sun. I was in there for approximately 50 minutes.
You have to go through periods of time when you can’t
swallow. This was very difficult. If you swallow, you might
have to stay in longer for them to get an accurate reading
from the scan.
Another day was set aside for a mock run through of the
procedure. My mask was placed on my head and bolted to the
table. Dr. Waldron, the radiation oncologist, proceeded
to make many marks and calculations on my mask as he lined
me up for future real treatments. My mask looked like a
calculus teacher had written his lesson all over the mask.
This was serious stuff. Two small tattoos were placed on
my chest to provide anchor points when I was attached to
With the radiation destroying the salivary glands, the lack
of saliva is a major problem for your teeth. Your teeth
need saliva to stay clean and deal with bacteria. If I had
this cancer 25 years ago, they would have pulled all my
teeth because they would have become rotten and fallen out
due to the lack of saliva. I was fitted for a mouth guard
at this meeting with the dentist at Princess Margaret Hospital.
Dr. Linda Lee explained to me that I had to put my teeth
in this mouth guard every night. You fill the mouth guard
with a fluoride gel. This keeps the teeth hard and less
susceptible to decay. This was just another part of the
preparation for battle I needed to equip myself in understanding.
How hard could 25 treatment of radiation be? The radiation
technicians were fabulous. Over the five weeks we became
very close. They explained to me that everyone reacted differently
to the radiation, and that some people could carry on a
relatively normal life during the treatment. I was hoping
to be the poster boy for radiation and treat it like a walk
in the park.
radiation treatment rooms are below grade at Princess Margaret
Hospital. You go down a few floors and swipe your card.
This lets the technicians know you have arrived. I had asked
for mid-morning appointments as I had an hour and a half
to two hour drive each way, they were more than accommodating
in my request. You had to be very patient when you arrived.
Some days the machines went down and there would be a one
or two hour delay. Other days, the technicians would encounter
patients with problems and there would be delays. Once inside
the treatment room, it only took about 15 to 20 minutes.
There was a beautiful picture a seascape as you entered
the room. You could bring in your own CD or listen to the
ones they had during your treatment.
I met all the technicians and they were very comforting
and reassuring. I lay down on a steel table with my mask
on my head. The mask was bolted to the table to eliminate
any movement. Once aligned, the technicians left the room,
and I could hear a brief buzzing. The foot thick lead door
opened, and the technicians came back into the room to realign
the radiation beam. When they left, I could hear the buzzing
again. It only lasted for approximately 6 seconds. This
procedure was repeated four times. After the last beam,
I was unbolted and free to leave. Man that seemed easy,
only 24 sessions to go. I said my goodbyes and drove an
hour and a half home. I knew it was going to get worse,
but I held out hope that I would be the one who didn’t
react adversely to the radiation.
It was Friday of the first week, and I had driven myself
to and from the hospital all week. My wife, Julie had taken
most of February off accompanying me to all of the pre-
radiation appointments. I was receiving radiation from both
sides due to the fact that tumour was on the midline. This
meant that the salivary glands on both side of my mouth
would be destroyed by the radiation. All week I paid close
attention to my saliva, appreciating every drop of the lubricant.
After my treatment on Friday, I stopped for a coffee and
a muffin. Up to now everything seemed pretty normal. I was
a little tired, but it wasn’t a big deal. When I took
a bite of my muffin, I realized that it wasn’t being
moistened the way it should, and I couldn’t swallow
it without help from the coffee.
weekend it got worse. How was I going to survive without
something you don’t even think twice about?
2 to 4
When you get a serious illness, you realize who your friends
are and aren’t. That is another entire story unto
itself. Julie had arranged a series of drivers to take me
to the treatments. The list of friends willing to take a
day off and drive to Toronto was humbling. Another option
I had was to stay at the Lodge in Toronto. This is a place
where for a nominal fee, you can stay Monday to Friday and
receive a shuttle bus to and from your appointments. We
thought it was best for the family if I went down to the
hospital each day. At least that way there would be some
normalcy to our life. It was important for me to see my
wife and son every day. My oldest son was away at school
in the States during this time.
going got tough during these weeks. With radiation treatments,
you don’t feel the beam of radiation when it is emitted.
It is a gradual burning of the tissue. It compounds every
day. The inside of my mouth was becoming very sore as the
tissues were being burned. Princess Margaret prepares a
mouthwash that numbs the inside of your mouth. This enables
you to tolerate drinking or eating. I was also given liquid
morphine that helped ease the pain. My weight was dropping
rapidly. That tends to happen when you can’t tolerate
food due to the pain of putting the food in your mouth.
The doctor had mentioned putting in a feeding tube if I
continued to lose weight. For whatever reason, I didn’t
want to go through the hassle of having a feeding tube inserted.
Looking back, that would have been the smartest thing I
could have done. During my weekly checkups my weight was
taken. I made sure my pockets were full of keys, change,
cell phone and anything that could add to my weight. With
the loss in weight, incredible pain, and the three and a
half to four hours in the car, I was having a rough time.
I would get home from the hospital and go to bed. I would
get up when my son would come home from school. Once again
our friends helped out and drove Jake to school every day.
It was Monday of the last week, and I had just celebrated
my 45th birthday on the weekend. Well it wasn’t much
of a celebration, but I had family and friends around me
and that was the best gift of all. Monday was a rainy day
and the trip to and from the hospital was very difficult.
When I returned home, I phoned Julie and told her I couldn’t
do it any more. I was extremely weak, I couldn’t put
food or water in my mouth and I was losing weight too fast.
In the end, I lost 60 pounds.
a result of the phone call to my wife, I spent the next
five weeks in the hospital hooked up to intravenous tubes
for nutrition and pain control. During that time period,
I couldn’t put a drop of water let alone food in my
mouth due to the severe burning. I still had four more radiation
treatments that had to be completed. They were the toughest,
but I got through them.
back to my first day of treatment and how I wanted to be
the poster for radiation, I realized in the end, I was the
poster boy for how brutal radiation can be. To this day
when I go back for check ups, the doctor brings in students
and shows them the extreme side effects of radiation treatment.
Stay (April 2000)
The stay in the hospital was just what I needed. I obtained
my nutrition and morphine intravenously. The nurses and
doctors were fabulous. I had a number of people visit me.
Sometimes the morphine took over and I imagined people in
the room. I watched two episodes of “Law and Order”
a day along with “Magnum PI”. The good part
is I don’t remember the episodes, so I can see them
today and still think I am seeing them for the first time!
2000-Radical Neck Surgery
When I was released from the hospital, I had to have more
tests completed to see if the radiation eradicated the cancer.
The only viable option was to have an operation called radical
neck surgery. At the beginning of this journey we knew this
might be a possibility. It is a major operation where they
basically remove muscles, nerves, and vessels from your
neck. The major side effects of the operation are one side
of your neck is removed, loss of mobility in your neck and
arm, and an accumulation of lymph fluid under your chin.
The five hour operation was performed on May 15th. When
I was coherent a few days after the operation I looked at
myself in the mirror. I looked like Frankenstein with half
a neck! There were numerous stitches and staples in my neck.
People visiting me put on a good act, because it was not
a pretty site. After a week in the hospital it was back
home where home care came in every day for a month to tend
to the neck.
The summer of 2000 was spent trying to put on weight and
trying to wean me off my pain killers. I had an analgesic
patch on my arm that emitted a pain killer throughout the
the summer, I slowly decreased the strength of the patch
until I was on Tylenol 3’s. I then went to Tylenol
2’s and eventually by the end of August, I was pain
and drug free.
with cancer-the side effects
My life seems to be divided into two parts. It’s like
life before and after you have children. Things are really
different. I refer to life before cancer as my other life.
Physically, emotionally and spiritually, life is different.
That’s another story for another time. As mentioned
earlier, the side effects of head and neck cancer are severe.
Below are listed the side effects I have encountered. Hopefully,
your reaction to the treatment won’t be as severe.
I have a dry mouth every minute of every day. This will
not change over time. I moisten my mouth with water etc
every couple of minutes. I have tried every artificial saliva
product on the market, and they are short term solutions.
In the beginning, I took a sip of water every couple of
minutes when I was trying to sleep. The doctor’s said
I would get used to sleeping with a dry mouth; they were
right. After about a year, I was able to sleep or should
I say lie in bed without having to drink water every couple,
of minutes. Six years out of treatment, I will sip five
or six times a night. Of course with drinking water all
day and throughout the night causes you to go to the bathroom
more than normal. I am up a lot throughout the night using
Throughout the day, I have a bottle of water with me at
all times. I need to sip every minute or so. If I get caught
without my water it is very uncomfortable, especially if
you run into someone and you start talking. Yikes!
can’t remember what it is like to eat a meal and not
have to put a liquid in my mouth to get the food lubricated
enough to swallow. If I go to a restaurant and I don’t
bring my water with me, I am held captive until my drink
arrives. If there are munchies to eat on the table, I have
to wait for my drink to arrive. It is impossible to take
a bit of food and swallow it unless I put some liquid in
my mouth. This becomes tiresome at times, but for the most
part this becomes normalized and I do it without thinking
A side effect of the radiation is the hardening of the tissue
on the shoulders. This tissue also hardens inside as well
and the muscles and tissue around the esophagus isn’t
as pliable as it once was. Just this past year, I have found
it more difficult to swallow food. My ENT doctor said this
was a result of the radiation and the swallowing could be
improved by putting an instrument down my throat and stretching
the esophagus. I had this procedure done in February 2006
and again in October 2006. It’s a simple procedure,
but it requires a general anaesthetic. Swallowing is much
easier after the operation. Hopefully I won’t have
to have it done every six months.
Approximately three years after the radiation and operation,
I was feeling tired all the time and I felt cold when I
shouldn’t have felt cold. I explained these feelings
to my family physician and he suggested I get my thyroid
gland checked. The radiation had damaged the thyroid gland
and it was under active. This is corrected by obtaining
the proper strength of a thyroid drug and taking it daily.
If you are diagnosed with a head and neck cancer and you
have to go through radiation treatment, it will be a rough
ride. But here’s the great part-you will get through
it. Your family and friends will be there every step of
the way. In battling cancer, you have to get worse before
you get better. But you will get better. So much has improved
in just the six years from when I was diagnosed. I hope
this has been somewhat of a help for anyone with a head
and neck cancer.
Life Your Vacation!
TO TALES OF THE BATTLE