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Willie Suarez (Oropharyngeal Cancer Survivor)

Willie Suarez (Oropharyngeal Cancer Survivor)

I was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer, stage IV. I had no specific cancer symptoms except for a small lump on the side of my neck. I had known about the lump for weeks, maybe even months but was not bothered by it. It wasnt until my wife noticed that she got concerned and sent me to see a doctor as soon as possible. 

My first reaction and how my family took the news

From the moment I was sent to do the biopsy by the doctor, I was ready. I took it as well as one can expect. The part that hurt me the most was not knowing how dangerous this could be for me and how it would affect my family. I didnt want to leave my wife with three kids alone. We had decided early on to let my kids know about what I was going through. They were 9,11, and 13 at the time and were shaken a bit. But for the most part, my family was very strong.

Treatments and alternative therapies

My wife, who is also an MD doctor, insisted that I follow and do everything that the doctors recommended and even more if I could. She suggested that we fight cancer as aggressively as possible, and as a former Marine, I was on board with it because this was something I had been doing before. 

I underwent a major surgery that lasted for nine hours, followed by two sessions of chemotherapy and 37 sessions of radiation therapy.

I did not come across any alternative treatments and wasnt offered any either, but I was open to everything. I even tried a weed brownie for the first time ever because a friend told me it was a great way to fight back the symptoms of chemotherapy and radiation.

How I managed my emotional well-being and my support system through it

I did nothing. My wife was the one who handled my emotional well-being for me. She kept a check on the kids throughout the journey and me. Things got messy for a while, but my family brought me back from hell every time.

I have always known how lucky I am. I have a great family and amazing friends. But when I was going through my battle with cancer, I came face to face with the fact that I am a lucky guy and a very blessed individual.

My wife and kids were so strong. My friends were there for me every step of the way. You need to understand that I was fighting cancer during the beginning of COVID. We depended on people for everything since we couldnt leave the house.

Even my Marine friends, whom I hadnt seen for years, flew to Las Vegas to provide me with all the help I needed and the emotional support that was so important. 

One time hundreds of my friends drove by in their cars with flags to show me their support. There were so many people that the local traffic had to stop, and the local news channel showed up and everything. I have a fantastic support system.

My experience with the doctors and the other medical staff?

 Most doctors and nurses were very attentive to my needs. One particular guy, the tech guy during my radiation treatment, was helpful during the last two weeks when I couldnt even walk on my own anymore. If it werent for Joe, I probably would have quit. It was so difficult, I remember. But he kept helping and encouraging me, and in a way, he got me through it.

Things that helped me and made me happy during the treatment 

My family. I spent months not eating or drinking anything by mouth. I was so skinny and weak. One day I watched a YouTube video of a guy that survived same cancer, talking about how egg drop soup got him through it. My youngest daughter, nine at the time, learned how to make that soup and my God. It was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. She had been making that soup four times a day for me for months. 

There was one incident that lit a fire under me. One day I was so weak that I passed out in the bathroom while my wife was in the kitchen preparing something for the kids. I ended up breaking my chin. It was a massive cut. I was so done. I literally couldnt go anymore. In our living room, we have many picture books of these camping trips we did as a family. Sometimes we spent months travelling the country in our RV or truck.

We had this picture that I love of the kids and me in front of a glacier in Alaska. My wife showed me that picture and asked me if I ever wanted to do that again? Yes, I answered.

That lit a fire under me. Now, after the cancer journey, we are back, making road trips again.

Lifestyle changes I made during cancer treatment

I have improved my general diet and eat better now. I dont take sugar anymore and have a lot more vegetables. Still, one of the leading lifestyle changes I made would be not to take things for granted anymore and understand that spending time with my family and friends is even more important than before.

How cancer changed me in a positive way

Cancer was, in many ways, a blessing in disguise for me. And I know this doesnt sound right, but for me, it was. Three days after I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, the news started talking about COVID. The same week I was scheduled to go through surgery in Los Angeles, California, announced their first COVID patients, and within hours they announced every hospital was going to be closed for everyone outside COVID patients. My surgery had to be rescheduled. If it wasnt because my surgeon fought for me, who knows what would have happened with that.

I remember being entirely alone for days in this hospital. No visitors of any kind outside the nurses were allowed, and justifiably so, and I wanted to stay away from close contact as much as possible. But when I got home, I got to spend a year with my kids and wife at home 24/7. One entire year. Every hour of every day.

Cancer made me a better father and a better husband, and even a better person.

My message to cancer patients and caregivers

A positive mindset can do wonders. I think if, as patients, we remain optimistic, that goes a long way toward getting better. Caregivers are humans too. Sometimes we expect them to have all the answers, and often they dont. I think we also need to trust and be honest with each other.

Dont over-promise anything, and be authentic. For example, radiation sucks. It is horrible. But it also can save your life. Lets be honest about what is ahead so that way we can be better prepared.

Support groups that I joined to help me through the journey

I joined a support group on Facebook. This group named SURVIVOR OF TONGUE CANCER was like the gift that keeps on giving. Extraordinary people are always willing to help and answer tough questions based on their own experience with this disease. And that is why I think people like you guys are like angels. I was lucky to have so many around me, but I know that its not always the case.

People like you guys can make a difference in the lives of those without a support group.

My thoughts on the importance of cancer awareness

There is an HPV vaccine that can prevent the kind of cancer I had. I wasnt aware of that before my ordeal. As a medical doctor, my wife had no idea about it in adults, but our kids have gotten theirs. I think awareness is paramount. We cant stop talking about these issues. Other people need to hear us because, unfortunately, cancer is not going anywhere anytime soon. 

But if I were to give one piece of advice to cancer patients and caregivers, it is not to lose hope.

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