2/07/18

Head and neck cancers on the rise for area men

A sore throat unlike any other landed Chester Ballard of Marshall in the emergency room.

He swallowed hard. It was painful. He spit up blood. He couldn’t sleep. A large mass had formed in his throat.

Twelve hours later, Ballard began his fight as a cancer survivor. Treatments started soon with a slew of options to consider. The long-time smoker was managing numerous chronic health conditions, and doctors feared his heart wasn’t strong enough for surgery.

Kalika Sarma, MD, considered Ballard’s long-term quality of life. He recommended chemotherapy and radiation to protect Ballard’s throat and preserve his ability to speak and eat. The aggressive treatment required daily visits.

Ballard’s daughter Niki Sanders said, “What’s 160 miles of driving for 35 days? I mean, what’s a month of my life to save his?”

Ballard fits what doctors are seeing – a recent rise in oral cancers linked to the HPV virus.

“Today, we see younger male patients. Eighty percent of newly diagnosed patients have very large masses on their tongue and tonsils caused by HPV,” Dr. Sarma said.

Sanders offers hope to those facing a difficult diagnosis, noting her father is a miracle patient. The odds were stacked against him after years of smoking and other health complications. His positive attitude and support from family and his medical team saw him through the rough patches.

Ballard’s advice to others is don’t miss your treatments. Stick with it even when “you feel like crap just walking.”

During a particular low moment, Ballard felt like giving up. He needed a feeding tube.

“It was hell,” he said, “but it’s not permanent, and I knew it would keep me strong until I was able to eat normally again.” 

His first “normal” meal? Ice cream and pie.

Oral cancers can affect a person’s ability to get proper nutrition. Symptoms can include pain, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, food tasting bland, and extreme weight loss.

The good news is these cancers respond well to treatments. Advances also ensure patients can choose less-invasive options.

Carle Cancer Center coordinates teams of specialists to improve a patient’s quality of life when undergoing treatment. The team supports patients through the entire process, including involving dieticians for nutrition services.

According to the National Cancer Institute, head and neck cancers account for approximately 4 percent of all cancers in the United States. These cancers are more than twice as common among men as they are among women.

The rise in HPV-related oral cancers for men has providers educating parents about a vaccine that can minimize the risk.

Pediatrician Stefanie Schroeder, DO, recommends both boys and girls receive the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12 during other routine check-ups to reduce their risk of infection.

“The vaccine is most effective prior to any sexual contact,” she said. Many insurances now cover the vaccine. Check with your insurance provider.

After seeing her dad suffer, Sanders will vaccinate her own children.

“When you have cancer, you’re in a battle for your life. Embrace it and stay strong,” Ballard said. 

He rang the bell on May 31 signaling he’s cancer-free.