When I was diagnosed with throat cancer at age 39, my first thought was my wife and three children.
Yes, I was scared.
No, I didn’t know what was to come.
What I did know was that leaving a toddler without a dad was not an option.
Putting my family firmly in the category of my “something to fight for,” I pushed through my battle with cancer, often reminding myself during the worst times that my little 4-year-old needed a dad.
I prayed a lot during that time. I am Catholic, and felt closer to God when I was battling cancer in 2009 than at any other point in my life. I promised God many things if I could get better – and one of those promises was that I would reach out to anyone who had cancer and offer help. If someone doesn’t want to talk about their disease, that’s okay. But if they do, maybe I can help one person cope.
Four months after I first heard the dreaded c-word, my PET scan showed that I was cancer free. When I went into the chemo room to thank my nurses, many of them told me they knew I’d make it because I talked nonstop about my son and family.
That was ten years ago. Today, I still come to the Cancer Center on Wednesdays to volunteer. The first time I saw a patient with the telltale “red neck” from radiation, I offered them something that would help and asked how long they had been in treatment. When I heard that their answer was five weeks, I immediately replied, “You’ve got it beat, you only have two weeks left!” When the radiation patient asked how I knew, and I told him that I had been through the same treatment a decade before. (Even now, seven weeks is a timeframe I can’t forget.)
“You see that young man over there? He beat the same thing I have 10 years ago.”
A few weeks ago, I overheard a lady I had talked to tell her friend, “You see that young man over there? He beat the same thing I have 10 years ago.” When I realized she was referring to me, I almost walked over and gave her a big hug.
That afternoon while driving home, I had a good long cry. Even if I had only helped only one person, I was keeping my promise to God. That made me feel valuable.
I have been there. And when I facing my disease and treatment, I needed every bit of encouragement that was offered to me. I understand.
This is why I volunteer.
Head and neck cancers account for approximately 3 percent of malignancies in the United States, but since most people don’t know the signs and symptoms of these cancers, nearly half of the cases are found in late stages when treatment options are more complex.
The Cancer Center’s MD Anderson-trained otolaryngologist Dr. Ashley Mays reviews common signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers, and offers insight on proven prevention options. She recently joined the group of renowned physicians who practice in the Head and Neck Center.
Learn more about the Head and Neck Center here.
The esteemed group of cancer specialists at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center’s Head and Neck Center recently welcomed otolaryngologists Dr. Ashley Mays and Dr. Larissa Sweeny. These physicians are the newest additions to the renowned group of experts whose work earned the U.S. News & World Report as a top 50 provider for Ear, Nose and Throat for 2017-2018 out of more than 4,500 medical centers evaluated in the U.S. Both Dr. Mays and Dr. Sweeny received special training in advanced head and neck surgical oncology and microvascular reconstruction.
When should you see a head and neck specialist?
“Patients may present with a mass or lump in their neck,” explains Dr. Sweeny. “Or they may notice changes in their voice, have persistent ear pain, or have trouble swallowing. If these symptoms go unresolved after six weeks of treatment by your primary care physician, we recommend you see a specialist.”
What are common causes of head and neck cancer?
“Traditionally, cancers of the head and neck stemmed from smoking, oral tobacco or alcohol use, but more and more people are developing cancer based on the HPV virus,” says Dr. Mays. “Because the virus stays in a person’s system many years before they develop symptoms, it never goes away, and slowly changes cells and causes them to become cancer later down the line.”
Dr. Sweeny cites that the connection between HPV and head and neck cancer is currently considered an epidemic due to its exponential rise every year.
How are cancers of the head and neck treated?
“When patients are candidates for surgery, our goal is to remove all of the cancer during the operation,” says Dr. Sweeny. “One of the benefits of being treated at the Cancer Center is that our facility is able to offer robotic surgery for patients with certain head and neck cancers, which allows for better swallowing function after therapy, a shorter operation, and fewer cosmetic irregularities.”
Can head and neck cancer be prevented?
“The majority of head and neck cancer is from smoking and alcohol abuse. The best thing a patient can do to reduce their risk of cancer and to improve their prognosis if diagnosed with cancer is to stop smoking. There is also a subset of head and neck cancers associated with the HPV virus,” says Dr. Sweeny. “Recently, the FDA approved the three-shot HPV vaccination series to help prevent HPV infection for anyone up to the age of 45.”
Why did you choose to practice at Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center?
“The Cancer Center gives me the wonderful opportunity to do everything I had been trained to do,” said Dr. Mays of her decision to join the Cancer Center following a two-year fellowship at M.D. Anderson. “I’m grateful to be able to provide a wide spectrum of services to the patients at such a great place.”
Dr. Mays and Dr. Sweeny are located on the 4th floor of the Cancer Center. Both physicians are available to see patients with head and neck cancer, thyroid and parathyroid disease, and salivary gland pathology, as well as patients who are experiencing pain in the ear, throat, and neck. To make an appointment, please call (225) 765-1765.
Louisiana is known for its fun, legendary festivals and events with unique spins on food, music and culture. However, ten years ago, something different premiered in Baton Rouge, offering an innovative approach to presenting cancer and other health topics with the same kind of flair. The annual event, Fest for Life, commenced in 2008, setting a new tone for delivering free cancer screenings, changing the way many people view these tests.
Hundreds are expected for this year’s tenth anniversary of Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center’s Fest for Life, Saturday, April 22 from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at Bon Carre’ Business Center, 7359 Florida Blvd. And living up to its reputation for a good time, East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome will kick off the event with a with a second line parade at 9:45 a.m. in honor of Fest for Life’s 10th anniversary.
Entertainment, food and games are all are a part of the scene and have become synonymous with the one-day health event, making potentially intimidating cancer screenings, fun.
Longtime Fest for Life participant Sharon Lindsey, a budding screenwriter, says that she began attending Fest for Life in 2013 to help ensure a healthier future. After losing her father to prostate cancer and having had numerous other relatives fight the disease, she takes no chances when it comes to her health.
“Over the years, I’ve brought my sister and nephews with me to Fest for Life because there’s something for everyone,” said Lindsey. “We’ve danced and enjoyed the food, but most of all we attended because of the screenings. It was a relief to know that we are in the clear, and now we are more educated on what we can do to help prevent cancer.”
Each year, Fest for Life offers five types of cancer and other life-saving health screenings and education, along musical entertainment, food, games for the kids and much more—all for free. Since Fest for Life began, more than 4,800 cancer screenings have been performed and 15 cancers have been detected. The event is part of the Cancer Center’s Prevention on the Go program.
Click here for more information on Fest for Life, or call (225) 215-1234.
Celebrating of 10 years of saving lives through cancer early detection
(Baton Rouge, La.) A decade ago, Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center launched a community health initiative, Fest for Life, which today has grown into a large-scale event that has screened more than 4,800 people for cancer and other diseases. Hundreds are expected for this year’s tenth anniversary of Fest for Life, Saturday, April 22 from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at Bon Carre’ Business Center, 7359 Florida Blvd., where free cancer screenings and tests for other diseases, health education and resources, food, entertainment and more will be offered for the entire family.
Fest for Life began in 2008 as a way to provide racial and ethnic minorities and others disproportionately impacted by cancer with free, easy access to potentially lifesaving services. Over the last few years, Fest for Life’s audience has expanded to offer even more people, regardless of minority or insurance status, convenient access to early detection services.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, who is serving as the 2017 honorary chair of Fest for Life and has been involved with the event since its early years, commends the Cancer Center for its efforts, especially with Louisiana residents experiencing some of the highest cancer mortality rates in the nation.
“There is a growing need for these kinds of early detection and education services, and in many cases people would not receive them if it weren’t for Fest for Life. Because of this event, cancers are being caught early; lives are being saved,” said Broome. “I’m so proud to be a part of this effort. Its impact is really immeasurable because not only are many people in the Greater Baton Rouge accessing screenings, early detection programs throughout the country are emulating this model to deliver their services. ”
Johnnay Benjamin, director of early detection and education for the Cancer Center, says 15 people have been diagnosed with cancer through Fest for Life, and other diseases have been detected as well.
“Fest for Life’s focus is certainly on cancer early detection, but its scope goes beyond this one disease and addresses the many health problems impacting our city’s residents,” said Benjamin. “In addition to cancer, mortality rates continue to soar due to conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes, and we provide screenings for all of these diseases.”
In addition to the health aspects of the event, Benjamin says that there has always been a focus on making Fest for Life an outing that the whole family can enjoy. Food, entertainment and children’s activities are all included at no cost, thanks to Karnival Krewe de Louisiane, the event’s presenting sponsor, along with other generous donors. As a special attraction in celebration of the 10th anniversary, Broome will kick off a second line parade at 9:45 a.m. at the event.
All screenings are available to those who have not been screened for cancer in the past 12 months. Appointments are required for breast cancer screenings only. To make an appointment, please call (225) 215-1234 or (888) 616-4687. For additional information about this event and other upcoming screenings, please visit marybirdlake.org.
About Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center
As a regional destination for cancer care, Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center offers the most advance technology and services provided by a dedicated team of nationally-recognized oncology experts. The Cancer Center provides best-practice, comprehensive care at every stage of the cancer journey, including disease site-specific multidisciplinary care teams, a robust clinical research program, extensive supportive care services and is the only facility in the Gulf South with the revolutionary Leksell Gamma Knife®Icon™. As a nonprofit organization, donor generosity is essential to sustaining the mission of improving survivorship and lessening the burden of cancer for so many throughout Southeast Louisiana and beyond. For more information on the Cancer Center, and how you can become involved, please visit mbpolol.org.
New York-native Joe Ferrer was going about his normal daily shaving routine in July 2015 when he noticed a lump on his throat that made him pause. As a spinal cancer survivor, he knew that listening to his gut instinct about his health was important in detecting his previous disease early, so he brought the lump to his doctor’s attention the same day he found it.
After extensive testing, Joseph was diagnosed with tonsil cancer and began his second cancer journey. As with most head and neck cancers, the road to recovery was challenging at times. But, because he did not delay treatment, he’s back to living a full, cancer-free life. He recently completed a 10-mile bike ride and is golfing again. He also surprised his Cancer Center caregivers with a delicious homemade Italian meal!
As a navigator for head and neck cancer patients, I help guide them every step of the way from diagnosis through treatment. And being thankful for an early diagnosis is something I often hear patients express. The earlier cancer is detected, the better the chances for a cure and the easier it is to treat the disease. In Joseph’s case, early detection played a key role in his successful outcome.
I always tell patients they are their own best advocate. Never be afraid to tell your doctor if you have a concern of any kind. According to the American Cancer Society, early signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer can mimic common illnesses, including:
- sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat that doesn’t go away
- trouble chewing or swallowing
- numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth
- hoarseness or voice changes that do not go away
- a lump or mass in the neck
Each year, National Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month is observed in April as a way to bring greater awareness to these diseases. The fastest growing segment of the oral cancer population consists of people between the ages of 25 and 50. More than 48,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year.
Joe’s proactive approach to his health can be an example to us all. We should all feel empowered to ask questions, be transparent with doctors and take action when we feel like our health could be at risk.