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Thad Lurie - Head and Neck Cancer Survivor

My cancer journey started in the spring of 2019, when I noticed a pea sized lump on the side of my neck during a shower. Three weeks later, my tonsil was still swollen, and I could swear the lump on the side of my neck was slowly getting bigger, which was worrisome. I scheduled an appointment with my GP to get it checked out.

My GP told me there were several possible causes, and that he wanted to run blood work. The blood work came back inconclusive, and he recommended an ultrasound to get more information. The ultrasound was a turning point.

The ultrasound results lead to a CT scan and a referral to a head and neck specialist. I found specialists in my area, read bios and backgrounds, and immediately set an appointment with a doctor I chose; as luck would have it, he was available the next day.

The head and neck specialist looked at the tests, felt the lumps, examined my throat and said it definitely looked like oropharyngeal cancer, probably HPV mediated. I left the meeting with a referral to a biopsy clinic and a lot of hope.

The biopsy two days later confirmed the diagnosis. I did have to go back for the head and neck docs to take a tissue sample from my throat to identify the primary tumor, and then it was time to meet with oncologists.

The following week, I met with the radiation and medical oncology teams at SCL Health on the same day, and they were both fantastic. I selected medical and radiation teams at the same facility on purpose — I thought having my treatments at the same facility would make everything smoother to coordinate, and since it was close to my house, I figured that would make driving to and from every day easier. I thanked myself for this decision more times than I can count.

For the purposes of this story, I’ll focus on the radiation side - my chemo was cisplatin, and I had seven infusions during the course of my treatment.

My whole radiation team was fantastic – the techs, the nurses and my doctor, Dr. Matthew Stenmark. They laid out a clear treatment plan with dates, times, expectations, side effects - everything.

We had to wait a couple weeks to get me onto the schedule, and before I knew it, the first big milestone came – mask day and my PET scan. Making the mask wasn’t too bad, and thankfully I’m not claustrophobic, so wearing it for the PET scan didn’t cause any real issues. My team recommended bilateral radiation in case there were microscopic tumors on my right side that didn’t show up on the scan – seeing as it had already metastasized, they thought it likely and wanted to be safe.

I spent my last two weeks before treatment lifting, eating everything in sight to try to add weight before treatment started, loving on my family and getting ahead at work. My wife and I set up a meditation corner, found healing stones and lotions, and prepared for the worst couple of months of our lives.

My first day of radiation was May 28. Being bolted to the table was a little intimidating, but after 20 minutes, it was one down, 34 to go. I even had a whiteboard in my office that I would update every day with zeroes in the radiation and chemo boxes. I still look at it every day.

The first couple weeks were hard, but not insurmountable. I still had enough energy to lift weights and work, and my throat and skin were in decent shape.

By the end of the third week, I was having trouble eating solids, as my saliva was basically gone. I shifted to an all liquid diet and stopped lifting so my body could focus all its energy on healing the impact the radiation had. My taste buds were basically gone; I couldn’t taste food, water tasted like metal and I had this constant brackish flavor in my mouth.

By the end of the fifth week, my throat was in tough shape and I had radiation sores on my tongue, which were painful. Dr. Stenmark prescribed Lidocaine lollipops that I could just hold on the sores to numb them, and they allowed me to keep forcing down protein shakes.

All my facial hair fell out. The skin on the sides of my neck went from mild burn to a severe burn. I rotated between Aquaphor, calendula lotion and CBD cream – my doctors said it was really working.

I stumbled across the finish line on July 16, 40 pounds lighter and constantly exhausted. The week after treatment ended was the worst, but I slowly started healing. At two weeks post – treatment my energy started to come back, and another week after that I was able to eat something solid, a fried egg white, for the first time in almost two months. I kept at it, ate more, made my way back to the gym, and truly started to heal, with my eye on the final milestone — the PET scan on October 17.

My story so far has a happy ending. The treatments were successful, and the PET scan showed no abnormal cancerous activity. I still have follow-ups every 6 weeks, alternating between my head and neck doc and my oncology team, and thankfully everything is as it should be.

I’m still healing, both physically and mentally. The important thing is that I’m alive, mostly healthy, and looking towards the future. 

I have tremendous gratitude for my radiation oncology team and how they carried me through some of the worst days of my life. My RT nurses always watched out for me, knew my case and my body inside out, and were constantly vigilant in their treatment duties and their love and care as humans. Dr. Stenmark was similarly amazing – always available, understanding my urgency to know what was going on and helping me stay calm with his expertise and confidence in our path forward.

I believe strongly that the success of my treatment was closely tied to the competence and compassion of my entire RT team. I also feel that the RT Answers patient education materials directly influenced my outcomes, and I am eternally grateful for that.