Heads up 2016
From Human Oncology
In 2013, after five years and two outpatient procedures to remove precancerous growths from his tongue, Josh Stangl got the diagnosis: squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity.
The cancer was caught early. He expected surgery to be similar to his previous outpatient procedures and thought he’d be well enough to participate in the Heads Up! Golf Outing, a fundraiser for head and neck cancer research and treatment at the University of Wisconsin, the following month. But thoughts of a leisurely day pursuing his favorite pastime while supporting a worthy cause quickly faded as he learned about the surgery.
Dr. Gregory Hartig, chief of Head and Neck Surgical Oncology in the Division of Otolaryngology at the University of Wisconsin, explained that the surgery would be much more complicated and the recovery would take longer than Stangl expected. “He told me, ‘Your job for the rest of 2013 will be to recover,’” Stangl recalled during the 10th annual Heads Up! Golf Outing, which drew 125 golfers and 190 dinner guests to University Ridge Golf Course on July 25 to honor patients and families affected by head and neck cancer.
Stangl underwent 11 hours of surgery, which included removal of the tumor and reconstruction of his tongue using tissue grafts from his wrist and blood vessel grafts from his forearm. Hartig gave him good news after the surgery: the cancer had not spread to his lymph nodes, and the surgical margins were clean.
Nevertheless, Stangl made the difficult decision—in consultation with Hartig and Dr. Paul Harari, chair of the Department of Human Oncology at the University of Wisconsin—to undergo radiation treatment.
“Two weeks into radiation things got pretty rough,” Stangl says. “It hurt to talk. It hurt to cough. It hurt to breathe.”
He thought about stopping treatment. Instead, he heeded the advice of the late sportscaster Stuart Scott: “When you get too tired to fight, then lay down, and rest, and let somebody else fight for you.”
Stangl told of how family, friends and especially his wife Jen helped him through this trying time. Despite some lingering side effects of the surgery and radiotherapy—dry mouth and difficulty making certain speech sounds—“I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome so far,” Stangl says. “The care I received was second to none in my book. Everyone I dealt with—reception, nursing, physician’s assistants, residents and doctors—were top notch. I’m very thankful that we were able to catch it early and that I have had such a great care team.”
Stangl, who works as an associate pharmacokineticist at Covance, lives with his wife in DeForest, Wis. He’s an avid golfer, and in addition to his participation in the Heads Up! Golf Outing, each year on the anniversary of his surgery he does an individual golf marathon to support cancer research at the university and has raised more than $15,000 so far.
Since Stangl’s finished his cancer treatments, he has checkups every three months. He usually gets a little nervous before each appointment but says, “I have every reason to believe that it’s going to be good news from here on out.”
An aggressive cancer cured
Gerry Bastien’s cancer was also caught early and successfully treated. Had he not heeded his wife Jan’s advice to have his persistent cough checked out, the outcome might have been very different. He too shared his story at the Heads Up! Golf Outing.
“Jan had a brain aneurysm and needed surgery, and as we talked about it, I kept clearing my throat,” Bastien says. “She said, ‘You really should have that looked at.’ She was pretty adamant, and I remember thinking, ‘Here she is going through a major health crisis, and she’s worried that I might have something wrong with me.’ She’s just one of the most selfless people. It was not hard to say I’d take care of it right away.”
Bastien had an examination just a few months earlier, but his doctor didn’t find anything abnormal and presumed the persistent “tickle” in his throat to be the result of acid reflux. This time, there was a small lump at the base of his tongue that turned out to be basaloid squamous cell carcinoma—a relatively rare and aggressive cancer.
The good news was that the cancer had not metastasized. Harari and Hartig discussed radiation and surgery treatment options. Bastien chose radiation to avoid the vocal impairment that may have resulted from surgery, given the location of the tumor.
Five days into Bastien’s six weeks of radiation treatment, his wife had her surgery and suffered a stroke while she was recovering in ICU. “We were both pretty much incapacitated, and we were lucky to have been surrounded by family members,” Bastien says. “We were never a particularly close family, but after this experience I have a much better relationship with my family than I did prior to my having cancer.”
The radiation treatments temporarily made food taste bad, gave him a bad burn inside his throat, which made eating difficult and caused him to lose about 40 lbs. He also permanently lost 65 percent of salivary gland function, which interferes with eating. But compared to others with head and neck cancer, Bastien feels that his disease was relatively minor.
“I didn’t have an epic battle,” Bastien says. “I’ve seen other cancer patients with scars, speech impairment and tubes sticking out of them. They went through so much more, and when I hear their stories, I think how lucky I am. I didn’t have it nearly as bad as so many others. I remember what I went through, and all the while thinking this isn’t as bad as it could have been if I had waited to see a doctor or if the tumor had been someplace else or had grown little bit more.”
Twelve years after his treatment, Bastien is cancer free, enjoying retirement and spending time with his wife and family, including 11 grandchildren.
Bastien is grateful to those who treated him. “What I remember most about the UW experience was that everybody there treated me like I was the most important person, and I have no reason to think that they didn’t do that for the guy who came in 20 minutes after me,” Bastien says.
It takes a team
Greg Gard, UW men’s basketball head coach, also was on hand to tell the story about his father’s glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.
Gard knew nothing about the disease when his father Glen was diagnosed. He did some research and concluded: “It’s like playing Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky all on one team.”
He and his family worked as a team, each playing a different role, to find treatment options, manage appointments, and take care of the family farm.
Gard consulted top cancer centers throughout the country searching for options. Surgery was too risky, so Glen underwent six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. In addition, he had laser interstitial thermal therapy at another institution, developed blood clots in his lungs and ultimately died.
Before his father’s cancer, Gard was fortunate to have never had a close family member with cancer and now is using his position to advocate on behalf of patients, their families, doctors and researchers.
“As hard as this journey has been for the past 15 months, there’s no doubt I’m in this position for a purpose,” Gard says. “I will use my visibility to ring the bell a little louder for more dollars for research, more dollars for patients, more dollars to try to find a cure, more dollars to help families navigate through what can be utter hell.”
Gard thanked all the people who helped his father while he was being treated at the UW Carbone Cancer Center and reminded the audience that treating cancer is a team effort.
“You don’t go through this alone,” he says. “Whether you’re a patient, a family member or primary caretaker, it’s nothing you can battle alone. Fortunately, I’ve had people like [Carbone Cancer Center Director] Dr. Howard Bailey, who were able to help. They didn’t always have the best news but were able to help find what was most beneficial for my dad. So for that and all the doctors at Carbone and all the doctors at the University of Wisconsin, thank you for walking me through this journey. This is a special place.”