Surviving the Perfect Storm: A Journey of Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment
Team of experts brings every possible weapon to bear in patient’s
battle with throat cancer
Cancer survivor Lou Schwarz with his wife, Vicki
Louis Schwarz refers to his experience with cancer as a “perfect storm.”
That compelling image – of a series of unlikely events coming together
to produce a very powerful outcome – perfectly describes what led to his
diagnosis and successful treatment for throat cancer.
Flash back to December, 2005. While showering one morning, Schwarz noticed a
swelling in one of the glands in his neck. He had a doctor’s appointment
scheduled for the following week, so he made a mental note to have it checked.
His doctor thought it might be an infection, but suggested he see an ear, nose
and throat doctor, so Schwarz went to an ENT specialist who performed a needle
biopsy of the node.
Some suspicious cells were identified, so he had the lymph node removed. The
diagnosis of cancer was a shock.
“At 66, I’m a relatively healthy non-smoker with no family history
of cancer. Your first thought is: ‘what the heck do I do now?’ I
was told I had cancer in a lymph node in my neck, but not where the cancer was
coming from. That would come later,” he says.
Enter Schwarz’s brother, Bob, a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch
who happened to be familiar with a company that had recently developed a new
technology for radiation therapy. They immediately put in a call to Varian Medical
Systems and the two brothers had a 20-minute telephone conference call with
a company representative. “She told us that the University
of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) was one of only two hospitals on the East
Coast that had the very latest technology called Trilogy,
capable of delivering very powerful doses of radiation to treat cancer in sensitive
areas of the body.” Schwarz knew right then that he wanted to be treated
at the University of Maryland.
Still reeling from the news of his cancer diagnosis, he continued to reach out
to family and friends for advice. “When something like this happens to
you, you start talking to everyone you know,” he recalls. Through his
wife’s relatives in Virginia came another piece of information that would
prove vital. A family member’s colleague passed on the request for a recommendation
to a local cancer doctor, who highly recommended Scott Strome, M.D.
So it was that Schwarz came under the care of Dr.
Scott Strome, chair of the Department
of Otorhinolaryngology and a nationally recognized head and neck surgeon
at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center (UMGCC).
He had an appointment to see Dr. Strome within the week.
Dr. Strome found a primary tumor located at the base of Schwarz’s throat
and diagnosed it as a Stage IV cancer, meaning it had spread beyond the primary
site. He explained to Schwarz the various options available to treat his cancer,
which included surgery or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation to shrink
the tumor and kill any stray cancer cells elsewhere in his body. Since cancers
of the head and neck often involve critical structures such as the tongue and
voice box, planning a treatment approach that would preserve his speech and
swallowing was a primary consideration.
Dr. Strome called his colleague, Dr.
Mohan Suntha, an expert in radiation therapy and a member of the multidisciplinary
and Neck Cancer program at Maryland, and arranged for Schwarz to see him
Dr. Suntha explained the strategy that he would use to attack the tumor with
radiation. Says Schwarz: “I’m thankful that I was able to be treated
with the latest technology available. The collateral damage of treating a cancer
of the throat like mine can be terrible; the radiation can destroy healthy parts
of your body along with the cancer. The Trilogy machine can do what they call
image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT); it takes images of the affected area
of your body at each treatment session, so the collateral damage is reduced.
In my case, my taste buds, saliva glands and all my teeth are still in tact
following my treatment, and I am able to eat and drink normally. That’s
a huge positive lifestyle outcome for me.”
A third specialist would also be instrumental in Schwarz’s care. He
was introduced to Dr.
Kevin Cullen, director of the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart
Greenebaum Cancer Center (UMGCC) and a medical oncologist who specializes in
head and neck cancer. As part of the multidisciplinary head and neck cancer
treatment team, it was Dr. Cullen who would plan and oversee the chemotherapy
part of Schwarz’s treatment.
The team of specialists met to review all of the scans and carefully plan a
comprehensive approach to the treatment. Once again, Schwarz would benefit from
yet another fortunate circumstance. After thoroughly evaluating him, Drs. Cullen
and Suntha explained that Schwarz was a candidate to take part in a clinical
trial using an experimental drug along with chemotherapy and radiation.
The new drug, called cetuximab (erbitux), had been used successfully in combination
with radiation in patients with colon and esophageal cancer, and showed great
promise in stopping the spread of cancer. Dr. Suntha was now leading an investigational
study to see if it worked as well for head and neck cancer.
“Not only did I have access to the best technology and the top doctors
in the field, but now I found out that I might be able to benefit from a brand
new drug as well,” says Schwarz.
The treatment process was challenging: eight weeks of radiation, along with
a combination of three different chemotherapy agents. “It was a long,
hard journey,” he recalls. “Your body gets worn down by the treatments.
But I had a tremendous medical team supporting me, as well as a wonderful caregiver,
my wife, Vicki. In addition to my excellent doctors, the nurse practitioners
and nurses were amazing. No matter when we had a question, they were there for
us, offering suggestions and remedies to soothe the side effects of treatment,
whether it was trouble swallowing and eating, running a high fever or the temporary
acne caused by the drugs I was taking.”
Once the radiation and chemotherapy regimen was complete, Dr. Strome performed
a neck dissection, a surgery to examine Schwarz’s throat, tonsils, and
lymph nodes to be sure there was no more cancer. A PET scan was also done to
check for any remaining malignancy. The results of both were good news: no cancer
“I feel as if the gathering of the “perfect storm” was overcome
thanks to my having found a team of world-class experts to handle my care, all
located under one roof here at the University of Maryland Medical Center,”
says Schwarz. “My medical team was the best there is. You don’t
run into folks like them every day.”
When asked how the experience affected him, Schwarz is thoughtful: “I’m
physically recovered now, and extremely thankful for the love and support of
my family, especially my wife, and my friends. It changes you, though. Once
you’ve had cancer, you’re always looking over your shoulder. So,
you work to cut the odds as much as you can, and you keep asking questions of
Today, Schwarz keeps a positive attitude and savors each day with this wife,
four grown children and four grandchildren. He feels healthy, has his strength
back and is looking forward to springtime, when he’ll be able to get back
outside and do the things he loves, like working on his house and lawn and playing
a little golf.
“I know that I had the best that medical science can provide and the
best doctors taking care of me. What more can you ask for?”
For more information on cancer diagnosis and treatment at UMGCC, or on
our Head and Neck Cancer Treatment Program, please call 1-800-888-8823.