My life changed overnight, on a November morning in 2014, in the shower, when I felt this lump underneath the skin on the right side of my neck, almost like a ping pong ball. Three weeks later I was in front of a cardiologist, whom I randomly selected on my health plan, complaining of chest pains, shortness of breath and that damn ping pong ball in my neck, which she dismissed as an innocuous swollen gland. “We’ll run some tests,” she told me. “Just to put your mind at ease.”
She called the day before Christmas and told me they’d found a “mass of some sort” surrounding the carotid artery, and that it would be in my best interest to get a CT scan. Several days later, I found myself on the second floor of the CT scan unit at NYU Langone with my stomach in knots. Beeps and buzzers went off as they slid me through a tube on my back to get a better view of this mysterious thing.
Seventy-two hours after we rang in the New Year, she called and said, “You have an enlarged lymph node that seems to be…” And after that, my mind went south, out of focus. Her voice became muffled, distorted, farther away.
“Hello, Mr. Migdale, are you still there? I’m going to refer you for a biopsy with…” After that, her words faded into my subconscious.
At 52, my health had never been an issue. Back in high school I was active in sports, a regular in the weight room in college, and for decades, no matter how much I ate, I never gained a pound. Like most guys, I took my health for granted. I never cared about how high or low my blood pressure was, knew nothing about cholesterol, let the scorching sun splatter my skin without lotion. I never paid attention to my weight or physical exams every year, and never bothered going into my online portal to analyze the results because I figured I was healthy.
According to an article written by Matt Mitchell in TalkSpace, an online medical journal, men are less likely to get an annual physical exam than women, mainly out of fear of what a doctor may find, or like me, go once a year for their routine visit, and ignore the recommended follow-up. He went on to write that “Avoiding your doctor especially when your body is trying to tell you something is wrong, is one of the worst things you can do for your physical and mental health.”
I Was the Picture of Health, or So I Had Thought. Suddenly I was Desperate for Answers
January was an emotional rollercoaster. I spent most of my time trying to find out what was wrong. The cardiologist who set me up with those initial tests referred me to an ENT on Broadway and 18th Street, who poured the fear of God down my throat after he suggested a needle biopsy. Three weeks into the New Year, I was in his office discussing symptoms when, without warning, he jammed this needle into my neck and said he’d call with the results. He babbled over the phone the next day about not getting a clear picture of the lymph node and stated that he wanted to explore this further by removing it. I’m a firm believer in western medicine, and when it comes to a particular feeling about a new doctor, I weigh the pros and cons but also rely on my gut instinct. Two days later, I picked up my results from his office and never phoned him again.
Growing up, I’d watched my parents run to doctors with every ache and ailment. My sister and I thought it was a bit ridiculous. They documented each visit and kept every record in a filing cabinet. Some dated back 20 years. The irony of all this was that they never took a sick day, even if they were under the weather. When my sister and I had a headache or a sneezing fit, my mother would say, “You’ll be fine in an hour. Here’s an aspirin. You’re not missing school.” My father insisted that we get a thorough physical exam every year, so beginning at age 10, our family doctor examined all my vitals and drew blood. As I got older and moved around, the doctors changed, but I never missed an annual physical.
So, when I brought the file of all my test results to my internist the first week of February, his nurse was at a loss for words. “I’ve never seen someone so organized,” she said. He was also impressed with how thorough I was and baffled by this lump. My stress level had skyrocketed. It was the dead of winter, and I was frozen with fear. Within minutes I was told that his ENT friend on East 58th Street was waiting for me. It was an emergency visit. Even before taking off my coat, this ENT convinced me to have the ping pong ball removed, then scheduled a routine biopsy on February 13 at a familiar Manhattan hospital.
For Many, a Cancer Diagnosis Comes as a Complete Shock
According to the Mayo Clinic, cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the world behind heart disease. With a cancer diagnosis most people feel anxious, afraid, overwhelmed and at a loss for what to do or how to cope.
The ENT called me in at the end of February, stared at me, and in a voice only a dog could hear said, “You have HPV P-16 squamous cell carcinoma. They found cancer cells in the lymph node.”
He didn’t know much about the diagnosis but predicted that I’d be bedridden for one year. Jan, my fiancé, and I were devastated. To add to the heartbreaking news, his nurse told us that their affiliated hospital would not cover me for cancer treatments and took off to see another patient. I felt like I’d been beaten up, defeated and dragged through the mud.
Less than an hour later, an office at the Cancer Center on 34th and Lexington called and scheduled me to see the Director of Head and Neck Surgery at NYU Langone, a hospital that accepted my insurance. This ENT on East 58th Street personally called and urged him to squeeze me in for an appointment. My mind was in such a fog that I didn’t hear anything but the date and time they wanted me to show up, and when I did, I was scared with a scope down my throat.
Ten days later, after he found the 3.5-inch tumor on the right base of my tongue, I had a clean full body PET scan and another biopsy. I met with his radiation oncologist who said he needed a few weeks to analyze my chart and determine what course of action his group would take.
Radiation Took a Toll on Me Physically, But Mentally I Stayed Tough
Radiation treatment was brutal. It reminded me a lot of Jack Nicholson in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with high voltage being shot into his temples and those convulsions. March 24, day 1, my arms were strapped in, shoulders were locked down, and was told to “bite down” on a foam lollipop fed through a slit they had made for me in a mesh mask. I became restless, itched, panicked. Moments later, there was a voice in my ears, “Tom, relax. Stay still, breathe in through your nose, exhale through your mouth.”
Days crept by. I stripped, got zapped and life moved forward. It was the same routine every time. I saw a lot of the same people suffering like me. For some it was their first week, others their fifth. We’d countdown sessions and wished each other luck. One week after that, fatigue set in, my throat became scratchy, I’d already dropped 15 pounds but never lost sight of the finish line. Jesse, the lead technician, and I reviewed the calendar together after every session. She ended up calling me “Iron Man.”
By week 6, I was 30 pounds down. My throat felt like I had four steak knives jabbing me when I swallowed. The smell of food made me nauseous. I sipped liquid through a straw. The pain was unbearable. No matter how crappy I felt, I never missed a session.
After 32 sessions, I stumbled across Manhattan on May 7 for my final visit to the basement. I stripped, threw on my robe. Jesse poked her head in. “Ready to graduate?” she asked.
They piped music into my ears as usual, and I drifted off for what seemed like hours. I felt groggy when they unbuckled me, took off my mask and helped me off the table. “You did it, Iron Man,” Jesse said, and snapped a pic of me on my last day.
Eight months later, I went back to visit the eight technicians at NYU Langone who saved my life. We reminisced after the hugs, handshakes, kind words and pictures. My parents are 90 and 91 and still go for their annual routine physical. In recent decades, they have added numerous specialists to their list of doctors.
I go for my routine visit once a year to NYU Langone and get my physical exam as well from my internist. In the interim, if I have an ache or an ailment, I run to the doctor. Now that I’ve survived cancer, it doesn’t seem so silly.
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