Throat Cancer Survivor

Surviving Cancer and Making His Dream of Being a Musician Come True

Whether he is working as a nurse in California, writing a book about his head and neck cancer experience or working to help the Arkansas Health Department track the spread of COVID-19, Rick Long puts his focus on helping others. After facing a Stage IV throat cancer diagnosis and successfully completing treatment, Rick is now cancer-free and finding creative ways to fulfill his passion for music.

Pursuing a career in music was always my dream so I moved from Arkansas to California to make it happen. When it did not bring in enough income to pay the bills, I channeled a desire to help people toward a new career in nursing. I spent 19 years assisting people as their nurse during the time when they were often at their worst.

When I noticed a knot about the size of an egg on the left side of my neck, I knew right away what it likely meant. I called my doctor’s office the next day. The doctor thought my lymph nodes might be swollen due to an infection and prescribed a round of antibiotics. The knot didn’t get smaller. My doctor then referred me to a head and neck specialist. When that physician saw me, he insisted on doing a biopsy of the knot that very day. Forty-eight hours later, I got the call that confirmed I had Stage IV squamous cell cancer of the head and neck.

Further testing showed the cancer was in my left tonsil and lymph nodes. Surgery was scheduled for a month later. The surgeon removed the tonsil along with a little more tissue around it until there were clean margins. After the surgery, I received chemotherapy and radiation therapy for six to seven weeks.

The radiation made my throat really sore. At one point, my doctor wanted to put in a feeding tube. I refused because I was afraid of losing the ability to swallow, even temporarily. It turns out this was a wise choice for me. I made sure to use a lidocaine rinse every four hours to help with the mouth and throat pain. To keep my throat flexible enough to swallow, I would sing “Ah” from a high pitch to a low pitch several times every day. Now I do this from low to high pitch to help strengthen my throat muscles and further improve my swallowing ability.

The chemotherapy caused nausea so I used my knowledge as a nurse to help. I started taking prescribed steroids and anti-nausea medications before the treatments in addition to afterward. When I took the medicines together a few days before a treatment, I discovered that I didn’t get nauseated. That was my trick to getting through the rest of the treatments.

Getting cancer was a wake-up call for me. After taking off work for 11 months for treatment and recovery, I realized I was burned out from working as a nurse. I had been playing music since I was eight years old and it was my true passion. I looked for opportunities that would allow me to live my dream of being involved in music full-time.

I moved back to Arkansas and made my music dream come true. I played in several bands and was living the life until COVID-19 shut down the music and entertainment industries. As I watched the Arkansas Governor hold daily news conferences on television, I knew I had to help in some way. Fortunately, I had not let my nursing license expire.

I became a case investigator, assisting the health department track COVID-19. Now I work as a nurse researcher, still able to use my knowledge as a nurse, work from home and bring in a salary.

I think this pandemic has taught us all a lot. It’s really important for people who have finished cancer treatment to try to stay healthy by being careful and mindful of contagions. Listen to your body and it will tell you what it needs. Change is coming whether you’re ready for it or not. It’s the natural flow of life.

My advice to others with cancer is to decide to live. If you decide to die, you’ll die. Fear paralyzes people. Studies have shown that emotions only live about 90 seconds in the brain. They come and go just that quickly unless you feed them with negative thoughts. Then they will live forever. Attitude is everything.

Being a nurse gave me the benefit of some inside knowledge and I wanted to share it. I used the cancer experience as motivation to write a book, The Nurse Who Had Cancer and Became a Rock Star. It offers many practical tips and tricks designed to help people going through treatment for a head and neck cancer. It can also be beneficial for people with other cancers, too.

As restrictions from COVID-19 linger, I am focusing on setting up a home studio to record meditative healing music for people with cancer. I’m also collaborating with other musicians remotely and hoping to play a few shows when possible.

Although I do have some lingering side effects from the treatment, I am cancer-free and loving life. I can’t eat spicy foods or drink soda or caffeine now, but I’m happy and I can help people — and you can, too.