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The Killer Inside Me

Five years ago, I became one of the thousands of men diagnosed every year in the U.S. with HPV-related throat cancer.


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This plastic mask was specially molded to my body. It was placed over my torso and locked onto the table to keep me still while the machine that delivered radiation rotated around me. - PHOTO BY BRENT KING
  • Photo by Brent King
  • This plastic mask was specially molded to my body. It was placed over my torso and locked onto the table to keep me still while the machine that delivered radiation rotated around me.

My general oncologist was to oversee the chemotherapy and advise me on the results of my labs. (I would require weekly blood tests to monitor my cell count and thyroid.) He was 30 minutes late for our appointment and came into the room laughing loudly. He was showboating for a younger, blond female colleague who was shadowing him for the day. He gave me a prescription for nausea, one for pain, one for anxiety, a steroid, and a laxative. The meeting lasted less than ten minutes. I would never see this man again.

That Sunday, my brother hosted a small get-together in my honor — just a few friends and family members. My throat was still sore from the tonsillectomy and it was too painful to swallow anything but crushed ice. Also, the king-sized bottle of codeine cough mixture left me feeling gauzy and removed. I remember saying hello to everyone and then going upstairs and falling asleep on his bed. In the moments before I dozed off, I realized that future Sunday dinners would carry on no matter what happened to me. There would be movie nights and birthdays and brunches. A new iPhone, a new Star Wars movie, a new season of The Bachelor. The realization that the world will keep spinning quite merrily without you is a commanding one.

Next was the removal of my lower wisdom teeth. They sat squarely in the radiation field and were considered "problem" teeth. I was told that any extractions post treatment would mean big trouble. The radiation beams targeting the lymph node and the base of my tongue would slowly dissolve the cancer cells while also ravaging the surrounding bone, blood vessels, and tissue. Future dental work of any kind would pose a risk as my body simply would not be able to heal itself. After the surgery, I was given two whole weeks to heal before treatment began. In this interval I was supposed to fatten up. I would need the extra weight. It was challenging because my throat was still tender and I couldn't really chew after my teeth had been removed.

Encouraged for the first time in my life to gorge myself, I was helpless to do so. In these two weeks, I realized what the anxiety meds were for. (They were supposed to be for the radiation procedure, which is claustrophobic and nerve-wracking for some.) For me, the anxiety came with the slow, sinking feeling of really knowing you are sick.

The first day of my radiation therapy went well. That's to say, I didn't panic. The tattoo I received (a tiny black dot) was used to align the plastic mask that was placed over my torso and locked onto the surface of the table. The radiation beams are programmed to be so precise that you have to remain essentially frozen as the machine spirals around you. (They threw a blanket over me — people were always throwing blankets over me.) The whole business lasted about 15 minutes. Data was entered into a laptop and then I was free to go.

Chemotherapy, on the other hand, was a bit more in your face. The gravity of the procedure hit when a nurse in rubber gloves and a hazmat suit arrived. The drug was in a plastic pouch that may as well have been labeled with a skull and crossbones. She handled it like a time bomb. It was administered intravenously and bookended by saline infusions. I was given my own recliner, a blanket, and a personal television. After four hours, I was allowed to leave until the following week.

The thing about these treatments is, at first, you don't really feel anything. Just a faint promise of something. The effects of the radiation took a couple of weeks to set in. The chemo announced itself in the first few days. By the end of the first week, I was introduced to a rocking, foaming nausea that would last for days. My ears rang and the cyclical vomiting left me exhausted. The urgency and force of it was impressive. At one point, I thought of procuring a lobster bib for all the splashback. I marveled at my body's abilities.

By the second week I began to feel a fatigue and a sense that a turning point was upon me. On the day before Thanksgiving, my brother and I visited Doughnut Dolly in Temescal Alley. It was the day I realized my taste buds were fading. He ordered the Mexican chocolate. I had the chilled wood glue.

The next morning I woke up to a biblical throbbing. The whole right side of my face was bloated beyond recognition. I was staring into a funhouse mirror and it was plain to see that the site of my former wisdom tooth had become infected. In fact, it had become abscessed and needed to be drained. At the dental office I was informed that bone dust, left behind, was likely the culprit. Without anesthesia, an oral surgeon and his assistant flushed the site with salt water. For those 30 minutes my whole body rattled from the pain. I was prescribed a whopping antibiotic and given a two-day respite from the radiation. By the time I arrived for my next appointment, I had lost nine pounds.

When your taste buds go, that is when they cease to function. It's not that you don't taste anything; it's that everything tastes like rotten newspaper. Even water becomes unpalatable. Add to that a blistering sunburn on the inside of your throat and you've got a hell of chore on your hands trying to stay hydrated. By this stage, my saliva glands had been scorched as well, and all my nourishment came in the form of Ensure Plus High Calorie Shakes. The bottles read strawberry, vanilla, butter pecan, but each mouthful was like throwing back a shot of molten lava. The ringing in my ears swelled and my jaw continued to smart and spasm. Three weeks in, three to go.