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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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I was certain that the cancer that invaded my body three years ago would kill me and I was so assured for the last two that I would lose my jaw. And now I kept trying to push away the very powerful feeling that this procedure would finally be the death of me. It's funny, but I hadn't allowed myself to see a future. I couldn't imagine a family or any happiness or successes unborn. When people say they have a lot on their minds, that's how I felt. Except it wasn't about work or kids or bill paying. It was about death and impossible pain and being unable to take care of myself or recognize myself when I looked in a mirror.

That morning I stood for a long time staring at my reflection. The wilderness of my brow, those weathering eyes, the frozen wrinkle of a smile. For that moment I was okay. That was the only thing I could be absolutely sure of. I arrived at Summit hospital at 6:30 a.m. A starchy hospital gown and a blanket had been laid out for me.

We're all hanging from a different thread and when you are as sick as I was, for a time, those threads are made visible. What matters gets refined. And what remains is never the same: a mirror's reflection, a trip to the farmers' market, a swallow of crème brûlée.

It's now been a year and a half since I was given another clean scan. No evidence of disease. The only evidence is a four-inch scar above my belly button. Chemotherapy wasn't needed because the cancer had yet to spread to other parts of my body.

That said, I can't say that I feel out of the woods or that I ever really will. With cancer you have to wait five years before they give you an all-clear and declare you a "survivor." The latest diagnosis reset the clock, and the long-term effects of radiation can present themselves at any time. And that list is long.

Looking back, maybe the colon cancer was bad luck. Or bad genes. The HPV-related throat cancer was not. A vaccine exists that can forestall these high-risk, cancer-causing infections. "Very few types of cancer can be prevented by a vaccine," noted Dr. Knott. "The HPV vaccine is most definitely an anti-cancer vaccine."

It's generally provided for both boys and girls beginning at the age of 11 or 12 — or before they reach an age of potential exposure to it — and is given in two or three doses. "Anyone who is a minor or anyone with children below the age of 18 should care about this vaccine, as it can prevent the spread of persistent infections and may also prevent the insidious development of throat and cervical cancers more than 20 years down the road," said Knott.

"I'm certainly going to vaccinate all of my children."