Throat Cancer Survivor

Give it your all

Despite two instances of recurrence, George 'Pepper' Burns overcame his Stage IV throat cancer.

Back in 2004, I was working in the helicopter section of the police department. One day when I put on my flight helmet, I experienced an intense pain in my left ear. I’d also been suffering from a burning sensation in the back of my throat, so I made an appointment with our family doctor to get both symptoms checked out. After a standard head-cold treatment failed, he referred me to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

And thank goodness he did. The ENT discovered my cancer—Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the throat. He then referred me to a head and neck cancer specialist, who confirmed the diagnosis.

My first reaction was one of resignation. Quite honestly, I don’t think I ever fully grasped the seriousness of the condition, although my wife, Teresa, did. She quickly figured out how bad it was. The doctor told us that my tumor had wrapped around the carotid artery, and although he could operate, he thought the best course of action was to first use a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

My entire health care team was incredible and Teresa and I never doubted their expertise, so we agreed with their suggestion to use radiation and chemotherapy. We had already decided that we would do everything in our power to do what they felt was best. If they were going to give it their all, then it was only fair that we do the same.

Prior to starting my treatment, I had one surgery to implant a stomach tube and another to place a port for the chemotherapy. I also received several injections in my stomach of a drug designed to minimize radiation damage to my salivary glands. I then underwent three rounds of chemotherapy and about 40 radiation therapy treatments. Thankfully, my tumor responded well, so no further treatment was necessary.

About a month later at a follow-up visit, my doctor told me that a CT scan had revealed a tiny spot in my right lung. He advised me to call my oncologist, who confirmed that it was indeed cancerous. My throat cancer had spread.

For treatment, a surgeon removed the upper lobe of my right lung, which successfully got rid of the cancer. Sometime later, another spot popped up in my right lung. But the surgeon again worked his magic and performed a wedge resection to remove it.

It has now been more than five years since that last surgery, and I’m still cancer-free. Physically, I had some setbacks along the way. I lost quite a bit of weight, and, at times, the pain in my throat became unbearable. But I knew I needed to push on and not give up. I had a lot of healing to go through and it takes time—a lot of time.

Emotionally, I did pretty well. My mood occasionally suffered, but Teresa and a couple of really fantastic nurses helped bring it right back up. I also received tremendous support from the police department and the bank where Teresa worked. Without them and my incredible doctors and nurses, I don’t know how I would have gotten through this.

Find a health care team you trust. It makes all the difference in the world!