Jim’s wife, Peggy*, had to drag him “kicking and screaming” to their first country western dancing lesson. “I really didn’t want any part of it. I have two left feet,” he says. But after a few classes, he began to enjoy it and soon added dancing to his list of other hobbies, including flying radio-controlled airplanes, fishing, and camping with his four children and three grandkids, all of whom live nearby.
Things changed in September 2015, right around his 65th birthday, when Jim* noticed a lump in his neck while driving to work. He called Peggy, who told him to call his ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor. The two, who’ve been married 45 years, went to the appointment together. After rounds of tests and waiting, the results came back, and floored both of them.
Jim was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer, a type of cancer that affects the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and the tonsils. Specifically, he had squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil, a part of the body’s germ-fighting immune system at the back of the mouth. His cancer was caused by HPV (human papillomavirus) and would require treatment.
Because he was healthy, active, and never smoked, “I didn’t think that I’d be at risk for a throat cancer,” Jim says.
“It was quite a shock to have this healthy, happy, energetic man all of a sudden being told he’s got a serious illness,” Peggy says. “We were finally getting to the golden years—they were just around the corner—and then, smack, comes along something we were totally unprepared for.”
The connection between HPV and some cancers and diseases
The truth is, no matter your sex, age, or sexual orientation, anyone who is sexually active can be at risk for HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, in the U.S., 85 percent of sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives.
For most people, the infection clears by itself, but that’s not always the case, according to the CDC. For some men and women, HPV can ultimately cause some cancers and diseases such as oropharyngeal cancer, like it did for Jim.
Learn more about Jim’s journey with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer in this video, courtesy of My HPV Cancer Story.
HPV infections often do not show signs or symptoms, so anyone who has the virus can pass it on without knowing it. “I don’t remember having any symptoms whatsoever, and was not having issues with my throat,” Jim says.
In the U.S., about 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers (which affect the oropharynx, or the back of the throat) are linked to HPV, the CDC notes. The average age of diagnosis is closer to Jim’s age—61 in men and 63 in women. But HPV-associated head and neck cancers can occur in adults of any age. And in the U.S., this cancer affects more men than women, per the CDC.
“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve been through”
“It was a very big surprise to me. I didn't know that HPV could cause the type of cancer I had,” says Jim of his cancer diagnosis. “The unknowns of what was ahead was [my] biggest concern.”
Jim’s treatment involved several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. “It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been through in my life, and I know it was the same way for Peggy as well,” Jim says.
“It’s very difficult to watch someone you love suffer. You might not feel their pain, but you know their pain,” Peggy says. “But I had to stay positive for him and the family, even though I felt as though all hope was gone. That little voice kept telling me, ‘No, you can’t give up. No, you can’t break down. You’ve got to get us through this. You’ve got to pull him through it because he would pull you through it.’”
Together, they did pull through, and Jim completed treatments around Christmas that year. He’s now been in remission for five years, getting checkups and scans annually to make sure he hasn’t had a recurrence. “I have survived one of the most difficult things to go through,” he says, “and being a survivor means that I have somewhat of a renewed lease on life.”
What Jim & Peggy want everyone to know—especially men
As difficult as it is to discuss, Jim and Peggy want to share their story so that others can educate themselves. “Since Jim and I were so unaware of the cancers that HPV could cause, we stumbled upon this blindly,” Peggy says. “We feel it’s part of our responsibility and blessing as survivors that we make sure people know what we didn’t.”
Both encourage everyone to educate themselves about HPV and HPV-related cancers and diseases and to speak with their doctors on how to take an active role in their health. Jim’s message to all the men out there reading this: Don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider if you have questions about anything new or unusual health-wise, especially a lump in your throat.
Men should also talk to their healthcare providers to see if any screenings may be necessary. It’s okay to be proactive—something Jim wishes he had been.
Currently, there’s no routinely recommended test for HPV in men. Speak with your healthcare provider to learn more about the link between HPV and certain cancers and diseases so you can be proactive about your health. You can also visit My HPV Cancer Story for more on Jim’s journey and HPV-related cancer.
*Last names not disclosed to protect the subjects’ privacy.
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