(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of special reports by Baltimore Liberal Examiner, Bill Schmalfeldt, detailing discovery, treatment, and recovery from oral cancer and things you as a potential cancer patient should know.)
It was either in October or November 2011 as Bill remembers it. Hardly the sort of event that one circles on his mental calander as “the day it happened.”
“I was at my computer writing something, doing something, looking at something, and Gail told me that she had a sore throat and an earache that just would not go away.
“So, I told her to call her nurse practitioner and get it looked at,” Bill said.
You should meeet Bill’s wife. A sturdy woman of hardy, pioneer, Wisconsin stock, Gail is the sort who could give birth in the morning and harvest hay bales by afternoon, Bill joked. She wasn’t about to waste a co-pay to see a nurse practitioner for something that could and would and should clear up by itself.
Until it didn’t. Bill said she tried treating it with ibuprofen. “She even bought some ‘sweet oil’ (whatever the hell that is) and poured some in her ear because a neighbor told her it worked wonders for her earaches,” Bill said. It didn’t.
According to Bill, it was sometime in late November when Gail threw in the towel and made an appointment with her nurse practitioner. The NP took a quick look, proclaimed it an infection and prescribed an antibiotic.
The antibiotic did nothing except make Gail nauseous.
After taking the antibiotic for the 10 days prescribed, the sore throat and earache were as bad as ever — getting worse, Bill said. She went back to see the nurse practitioner. This time the NP recommended that Gail go see an ear-nose-and-throat guy. (They’re called otolaryngologists now, but for the sake of not having to type otolaryngologist again, let’s just call them ENT docs.)
“Usually if Gail has a doctor’s appointment, she goes alone,” Bill said. A long-time broadcaster, writer and editor at the National Institutes of Health, Bill’s Parkinson’s disease led to his retirement in March 2011. Bill says it’s a “pain in the butt” to have to load his walker into the car and drag him along for every little errand Gail had to run.
Such was the case on Jan. 19, 2012 when Gail visited the ENT doctor her NP suggested. “I sat here and got some freelance work done and when Gail got home, I noticed she did not have a prescription form. She had an order for a CT scan. The ENT doc took a look at the back of her throat and saw what he suspected to be a small tumor where her left tonsil used to be,” Bill said.
The CT scan would be to rule out “squamous cell carcinoma of the left tonsillar fossa.” That’s the little pit your tonsil sits in. Bill said Gail’s tonsils were removed decades ago.
“I was more concerned about this than Gail was,” Bill recalled. “In fact, I was flabbergasted. Gail went to the doctor to get an infection looked at, not to come home with cancer. I wanted to send her back to the doctor, go with her this time, and get him to admit his mistake.”
“‘She’s here for an ear infection and sore throat,’ I would have shouted. ‘Not for some damned cancer. You’re wrong. Give her an antibiotic. Fix her!'”
Of course, Bill knew better. Six years of being a writer for “America’s Hospital” at the National Institutes of Health instills one with a bit of medical knowledge — nothing approaching that of a doctor, but one does not stay employed long in that environment unless one knows a thing or two about medical terminology.
And a quick check of the symptoms for tonsil cancer lists “persistent sore throat and earache” as something to be checked out.
“For the first time, I was really scared,” Bill said. “Not so much for what Gail was going to have to go through, but for what could have happened. I think of all the people just like Gail and me. We’re lucky. I worked for the government and when my Parkinson’s disease made it so I couldn’t handle the daily commute, I had the option to take early retirement and keep my benefits. I think about the people in my position who lose their jobs or are forced to retire early who don’t get to keep their benefits. You think things are going well, and… Boom. Cancer. If I weren’t still insured, this would ruin us. And Gail would certainly not get the kind of care she deserves.”
He shook his head. “What kind of country is this, where we can find the money to throw at wars and tax breaks for billionaires to send our jobs out of the country, but people have to go without basic health care? Thank God we’re covered. It scares me to think of what could have happened if we were not.”
Gail had her CT scan and went back to the ENT guy on Jan. 31. This time, Bill went with her.
“He said the CT scan wasn’t really conclusive, other than showing a slightly enhanced thickening in the area,” Bill explained. The doctor numbed her throat and snipped out a small, pink piece of the offending lump and sent it to the laboratory.
On the evening of Feb. 7, 2012, the doctor called with the results.
The specimen proved to be “squamous cell carcinoma, moderately differentiated.”
It was official. Gail had throat cancer.
He recommended a specialist who deals with this sort of thing at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. They made an appointment.
(Coming up: “What is a squamous cell and what do they do?”)
To follow Bill and Gail through their cancer story, visit Famous Squamous.
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