Metastatic Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma (Unknown Primary)

Fight for your life

Matt Mauer was diagnosed with metastatic head and neck cancer of unknown primary origin and kept fighting until it was in his rearview mirror.

 

As the Battalion Chief for the Kansas City Fire Department Aircraft Rescue Division, I’ve fought through a lot. But when I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma in May 2006 at the age of 46, I knew I was in for a different kind of fight.

At an annual physical, my primary-care physician noticed some tenderness on the right side of my neck for the second year in a row. He suspected the culprit was merely a swollen lymph node or blocked salivary duct, but an MRI revealed apparent neoplastic activity. Aspiration confirmed it—I had cancer. Other than that neck tenderness, I was almost completely asymptomatic. So without the good relationship I had with my primary-care physician, I might not have survived.

My first reaction to hearing I had cancer was, “Let’s kill it.” Nevertheless, I wanted to avoid radiation therapy if at all possible, despite my doctor’s recommendation. However, through further conversations with my health care team, self-education online and discussions with other head and neck cancer patients (as well as an old friend who was an ear, nose and throat doctor), I came to understand why radiation was necessary for my treatment. I eventually underwent 70 rounds of radiation, and sure enough, it was effective. I completed treatment around Thanksgiving of 2006 and now only see my doctors for monitoring.

The treatment left me with some physical side effects, including temporary weight loss and nausea, as well as more permanent tissue atrophy, muscle loss, hair loss, dizziness, memory loss, hearing loss and vision changes. But I’ve learned to cope and now have a hearing aid, write down thoughts so I don’t forget them, wear glasses, spend time in the gym and change the way I do my work.

Emotionally, I help myself by helping others. I’m involved with several professional, civic and charitable causes. At work, I’m busy taking care of two airports’ fire and crash protection programs as well as departmental FAA compliance, and I’m involved in my union. I’m also working with some national aviation groups to improve fire protection technology, and I’m getting ready to present at an industry conference. In the community, I’m working toward civic improvement and I’m heavily involved in Boy Scouts, my local school districts and youth sports. I’m also working on my master’s degree, doing some teaching, and working as a part-time editor for an industry magazine.

Through it all, I’ve learned that which does not kill me makes me stronger. I’ve also learned that sometimes asking for help is a good thing. I was initially a little hardheaded about asking for – and accepting – help. But eventually, my longtime girlfriend Wendy put together a spreadsheet and we began filling it in with people who offered to bring me meals, give me rides to my appointments and come over to visit. It was nice not to be alone.

I have three children and Wendy has two. I fought hard to beat my cancer and I still fight hard to manage my side effects because our children have far too much going on for me to let this disease shut me down. I initially was extremely worried about how our kids would fare if I died. But I didn’t. I’m still here for Wendy, for our children and for our extremely well-nourished cat, Cookie. And after all I went through with cancer, I definitely don’t take any of them for granted.

You’ll get through it. Keep fighting.

 

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