A new 'angle' on life after oral cancer
Tom Limbach and his wife, Sue, appreciate the panoramic views of the Mississippi River from their deck in Lansing, Iowa, not to mention being a short cast away from fishing, boating and so many other activities they love.
Easy access to the outdoors is one of the reasons the couple decided to turn their cabin into a retirement home four years ago after living in Waverly, Iowa, and settle in the bluff-side town full-time.
Another aspect of Lansing they couldn't resist: "The people are so genuine," Tom says. "It was an easy choice to make."
For Tom, being surrounded by a supportive community is important. It's one of the reasons he chose to receive treatment at Gundersen Health System's Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders when faced with oral cancer several years ago.
"My care team was so amazing," Tom says. "It's obvious that what they do isn't just a job for them. It's their life's profession. It's what they choose to do. I was impressed every single time."
Tom's journey with cancer started in the fall of 2015, after months of constantly trying to clear his throat and never being able to eliminate the discomfort. "It almost felt like I had a popcorn husk stuck on the back of it," Tom says.
After a couple rounds of antibiotics to rule out strep throat and other conditions, the feeling persisted. Tom was referred to otolaryngologist Michael Case, MD, who reviewed Tom's medical history—including that the then-64- year-old had never smoked—and ordered a biopsy of a lump in his throat.
The results confirmed what Dr. Case had suspected. Tom had oral cancer, caused by the p-16 strand of human papillomavirus (HPV). The good news, Dr. Case told Tom, was that this type of cancer generally responds well to treatment.
Within days of the diagnosis, Dr. Case surgically removed Tom's tumor, which had grown to the size of a small Mandarin orange. Tom then spent July and part of August in 2016 undergoing radiation therapy with oncologist Patrick Conway, MD, to target any remaining cancer in the surrounding tissue and lymph nodes.
A year later, Tom was cancer-free. He credits much of his recovery to his care team, his wife and the encouragement they provided during such an uncertain time.
"Everyone I met was so positive … and my wife is an amazing person," Tom says. "She was there to support me. She was right there by my side saying we're going to get through this. It may sound simple, but I imagine that was very difficult for her while thinking about everything that could happen." Now, Tom is helping spread word about the dangers of oral cancer—a diagnosis he never expected—and advice from his doctors.
"If you have an abnormal swelling in your neck," Dr. Case says, "it's something you should get checked out."
As Tom knows too well, the instruction can literally be lifesaving. It's allowed him to enjoy more summers outside, surrounded by a community and people he loves.
"Listen to the professionals," Tom says, "and if they say take action, take action."
While not all oral cancers can be prevented, one of the best protective measures against HPV caused cancers is the three-dose series of HPV vaccine, recommended for all children, ages 11-12. Teenagers who did not start or finish the HPV vaccine series when they were younger should get it now. Call your child's primary care provider today.