Rochesterian Jim Toole is looking forward to a warm summer filled with hearty picnic barbecues after beating throat cancer.
Toole and oncologists at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center are among hundreds of area residents who are observing Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week, next week, April 19-25.
Toole was diagnosed with the disease about two years ago. He knew something was wrong when he started having difficulty buttoning his shirt collars as he dressed for work each morning.
“I thought it was strange and that maybe I was gaining weight,” says Toole, 68, of Highland Avenue in Rochester. But he wasn’t putting on extra pounds.
The former manager of training and safety for the city of Rochester asked his doctor about it. While his physician was unable to detect any problems, Toole went to a specialist for an answer.
Saurin Popat, M.D., a head and neck surgeon with the Wilmot Cancer Center, discovered a cancerous tumor in his throat, near his larynx. It was very small, only visible during a laryngoscopy, a procedure that involves sending a camera on a scope down a person’s throat to see the larynx and vocal cords. Despite its size, the tumor was Stage 3, or advanced and required aggressive treatment, Popat says.
Head and neck cancers account for about 6 percent of all cancers in the United States, affecting more than 60,000 people each year. When thyroid cancers are included in the figures, the number jumps to 10 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. These cancers, often caused by tobacco and alcohol use, are more common in men and in people over age 50.
The Wilmot Cancer Center’s multidisciplinary head and neck cancer team offers comprehensive, innovative care to beat the disease. This team led by Popat, surgical oncologist, Yuhchyau Chen, M.D., radiation oncologist, and Kishan Pandya, M.D., medical oncologist, also includes specially trained nurses, nutritionists, social workers, and speech language pathologists to provide a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to treat all head and neck cancers.
Toole was surprised by the throat cancer -- his second cancer -- because, at the time, he was nearing completion of treatment for prostate cancer.
“I knew that I was in the right age group and at risk for prostate cancer, because it’s so common for men,” Toole says. “I didn’t think that I’d end up with this throat cancer.”
As with the majority of head and neck cancers involving the lining of the mouth, tongue, and throat, Toole’s type of cancer is more common in people who smoke or use tobacco products. However, there are other less common cancers of the head and neck that are not associated with tobacco or alcohol.
“Mr. Toole’s cancer was found in a moderately advanced stage and we were able to treat it effectively with well-planned radiation and chemotherapy followed by neck surgery,” says Popat.
Toole, a long time smoker, knew immediately that he would beat the disease, because “I wasn’t going to be defined as a cancer patient. Cancer wasn’t my whole life, it was something that happened to me and that I worked with my doctors to beat,” he says. “I knew I was going to fight hard and beat it.”
“Mr. Toole is very lucky. We found his cancer at an advanced stage but were able to treat it successfully radiation and chemotherapy, followed by surgery,” Popat says. “He is one of the many successes we’re seeing as treatments for head and neck tumors advance and become more effective.”
Toole endured 35 radiation treatments over seven weeks and six rounds of chemotherapy to destroy the tumor, before undergoing surgery to remove adjacent lymph nodes in the neck in the attempt to completely rid him of the disease. Toole was out of the hospital within two days after surgery and was determined to get back to work on the day after his discharge.
Throughout the regimen, he struggled with the side effects – inability to swallow with accompanying weight loss requiring the placement of a feeding tube. The only lasting effects are some dryness of the mouth and throat. Toole is back to eating normally.
“I lost 40 pounds pretty quickly,” Toole recalls. “When you can’t eat, or don’t want to eat, you’re going to lose weight.”
Toole, who retired from his job with the City last year, was able to return to eating shortly after his surgery. Today, he’s gained some of the weight back and is enjoying his retirement, spending time with his family and grandchildren.
“My family has been a great support system,” he says. “I relied on them a lot.”
Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week is an opportunity for doctors to remind people of the symptoms of these types of cancers: continued hoarseness, unexplained lumps in the neck, progressive difficulty in swallowing or other out of the ordinary symptoms.
Smokers and former smokers should be cognizant of these symptoms and contact their physician if any exist. Early diagnosis of cancers offers the best chances for beating the disease.
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