Michael Triplett’s birthday marks not only one, but two significant moments in his life — his birth and his cancer diagnosis.
My birthday is April 20. I have always shared it with Adolf Hitler and, more recently, the Columbine shootings. Nothing says “Happy Birthday” like sharing the day with the man who orchestrated the Holocaust and the worst school shooting in the nation’s history. It can make for a lousy day to be born.
This year, my 48th birthday will also mark the first anniversary of my tongue cancer diagnosis. Oh, and did I mention the anniversary of my boyfriend confirming he was taking a job out of the country for a year? Good times.
In the past year, I’ve had: three surgeries, 42 days of traditional radiation treatment, five rounds of chemotherapy, and five days of advanced radiation treatment. My medical bills have surpassed the $600,000 mark—thank God for my employer’s great insurance plan.
I’ve lost over 50 pounds and all my facial hair, had almost half of my tongue removed, undergone two high-tech robotic procedures, used up over 70 percent of my accumulated sick leave, and had my 76-year old mother living with me for about 12 weeks to assist in my care.
From this birthday forward, my gifts better be pretty damn spectacular.
My cancer is part of a growing “epidemic” of oral cancer unrelated to smoking and drinking. Instead, there is an increase—primarily in middle-aged, white men—of tongue and other mouth cancers connected to the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV has traditionally been connected to cervical cancer in women, but there is growing evidence of the virus being a major risk factor for getting head and neck cancer.
I’ve never smoked and never been more than a social drinker. I’ve never even performed oral sex on a woman, which has been a working hypothesis behind the rise in oral cancers for men. While it’s nice to be special and unique, the only real comfort comes from knowing that HPV-related oral cancer is more responsive to treatment and that the prognosis is better than other oral cancers.
At this moment, I’m doing OK. I was the brave cancer patient through my first round of surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy. I stayed optimistic and tried to focus on being “cured.” I was lucky that I recovered quickly from the surgeries and that my radiation/chemo regime went remarkably well. My doctors said I had an amazing tolerance for pain and was at the top of the bell curve in terms of how well I responded.
Trying to take advantage of my weight loss, I started seeing a personal trainer after I was done with my treatments. I took a 10 day vacation to Amsterdam with my boyfriend just two months after finishing everything. Things were going so well.
That optimism and bravery ended in December when a spot that had appeared in one of my initial scans after surgery did not disappear after treatment. The decision was made to remove more of my tongue, and then later decided to do a round of high-tech radiation called Cyberknife, as well as three more rounds of chemotherapy. It was the lowest point of my year with cancer, and that recovery was the hardest I experienced.
My mouth was full of sores. My tongue was swollen and covered in sores. Everytime I swallowed, it hurt. I had to take pain medication before I ate anything, something that has also occurred with every surgery. I needed a suction machine to remove, well, “stuff” in my mouth and throat that I couldn’t swallow.
My diet consisted exclusively of high-protein, high-calorie smoothies, and soup. When I told my doctor I was taking two Percocets and four Advils every six hours, he scolded me for not taking enough. Take the same number, but every four hours. He was ready to give me a narcotics patch. Anything so I could get enough nutrition.
The radiation was its own unique form of torture, something that would make sense at Guantanamo Bay or some other similar setting.
You lie down on a metal table and have a mask placed over your head. The mask—which reminds me of something worn by a beekeeper—is then bolted to the table. After that, your hands are immobilized so that you don’t move your shoulders into the radiation field. Then you lie there for 15 to 45 minutes while they aim radiation at your head. I found it to be a useful time to plan my day and chart out the revenge and recriminations I needed to undertake once the whole thing was over.
I have to stop at this point and admit I’m probably not very good at being a cancer patient. I don’t want to participate in walks or raise money to cure cancer. I don’t want to be a fighter. I don’t want to go to support groups or be one of those people who found great meaning in having cancer. As my therapist said in our first session, my primary revelation from having cancer may be that it sucks and that I’ve had a really awful year.
Oh, there’s been some positive outcomes from it all. I may be the only person with cancer who actually looks younger and healthier now than before I was diagnosed. I went from being an overweight guy with a greying beard to a much less overweight guy with a clean-shaven baby face. I have a surprisingly discrete scar from my left ear to my collar-bone and across the bottom half my neck that most people can barely notice. When I tell people I’m about to turn 48, they are stunned.
I’m also lucky to live just outside Washington, D.C. and near nationally-recognized specialists in the kind of cancer I have. I was able to have robotic surgery on my tongue in a procedure that has only recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is performed by only a handful of surgeons. My oncologist and radiation oncologist have done major research on head and neck cancer. I was able to have Cyberknife treatments—imagine radiation performed by a massive robot from a science fiction movie—at one of the only places in the country doing this kind of treatment on people with my kind of cancer.
But it all still sucks.
I can no longer eat the kind of food I used to. Eating, which used to be one of my great joys, has become a chore and source of major emotion. For now, I can’t eat really spicy food, drink alcohol, or eat quickly. I no longer eat sandwiches or tortilla chips with salsa. I can’t remember the last time I had a steak.
Talking is a source of exasperation. I’ve always been self-conscious of the way I talked, yet unafraid of speaking in public or to large groups. Over the last year, I’ve had numerous periods where I had difficulty talking. While my speech is surprisingly good given what I’ve been through, I’m always worried about how I sound and whether people understand me. I’m never sure if people understand me on the phone.
I’ve spent more time in hospitals and doctors’ offices than I ever have in my life. All the receptionists know me. When I went in for my third surgery, the nurses in pre-op remembered me. The valets at Georgetown Medical Center recognize me when I pull-up my car and not just because I tip every time. The pharmacist knows me by name, the way the barista at my favorite Starbucks used to remember my venti Pike with room.
My goal is to have decades of anniversaries of my cancer. Or, more hopefully, to slowly forget that it is the anniversary because it will no longer be the center of my life. But that’s not going to happen soon, no matter how good the prognosis is at the moment.
So I’ll find some way to toast the anniversary–not with alcohol or a protein shake–and continue to hope for the best. Someday, hopefully, I can go back to blaming a lousy birthday on Hitler.
Man photo from Shutterstock