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Pieces of the Continent #14: Robert Russell

Our latest interviewee from the world of HPV is Robert Russell.

Tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Robert Macon Russel, and I’m 56 years old. I’m married to Kristi Russel and I have one daughter (Lilli) and two step children (Jack and Kyle). I currently work in sales. I used to be a runner until my knees could no longer handle it, so I’ve been biking since July this year. I love it. So far I have cycled nearly 1000 miles! Even though I’ve had one pretty bad wipe-out, it’s not stopped me getting back on the bike.

What is your story of being diagnosed with cancer?

A little more than 5 years ago I was parking cars at work and felt my body start walking sideways. Things were feeling strange and it only got worse day by day; I can remember standing in the bathroom wondering if I would ever feel better. I ignored symptoms like feeling a growth on my tongue and spitting up blood. I finally took myself to the doctors when I went totally deaf in my left ear, though at this point he put my symptoms down to allergies. A couple of local doctors looked down my throat and took blood tests and still could not find anything wrong. So, I called the local ENT. A throat biopsy was taken and it came back that I had cancer. At this point I was told that the cancer would be clear after a little chemotherapy and there wasn’t too much to worry about. I was sent to Duke Cancer for some further testing and eventually got my real results: a diagnosis of advanced stage HPV associated with squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx. Doctors were “cautiously optimistic”.

How did you feel when you got your diagnosis?

Honestly, I felt let down by the first three doctors who gave me incorrect or incomplete diagnoses. I am glad I went to Duke Cancer and got those further tests. After finding out I had cancer I was not too scared or worried though I didn’t know what was in store for me.

What was treatment like?

I had two choices for treatment. One was to have surgery to cut the cancer out of my throat, which would have removed most of the left side of my jaw. The second option was radiotherapy with chemo, and that is what I chose. I moved along with my father closer to Duke Cancer for seven weeks of intensive radiation and stron chemo treatments. The first few weeks weren’t so bad, then I just began to feel worse and worse. All day and night I would be throwing up, and I had so many side effects from the treatment: malnutrition, constipation, neutropenia, and mucositis just to name a few. My faith really helped me through this time.

I struggled to eat because my tongue was so infected and I lost a lot of weight, so I was put on a feeding tube. The feeding tube didn’t work so I ended up back at Duke Cancer to sit in a Hyperbaric Chamber which would cure my tongue infection, meaning I could eat again. I was in there twice a day diving below sea level with many badly injured people. After about the 70th dive I was feeling much better.

Finally, I was able to come home, taking 6 Oxy Contin per day and numbing my throat to eat.

What was the impact of the cancer on your life?

Cancer really messed me up. I have physical effects like tinnitus and a constant dry throat, as well as lasting mental effects like a loss of confidence. However, it did make my faith stronger and improved my confidence and love of fate. I could have died but God had a plan for me not to die. I know now there is nothing I can’t beat. I beat cancer!

What would you say to people who oppose gender neutral vaccination against HPV?

All children should be vaccinated against HPV. You can get HPV in so many ways and we know that kids are at risk of contracting the virus and not knowing about it until many years later. Why wait until we have an HPV epidemic? There is not enough information and discussion right now about HPV and I want to educate families in any way I can.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you for the opportunity to tell my story. If just a few families read this and make the decision to get their children vaccination against HPV it will all be worth it. We need to spread the word about HPV and beat cancer.

Want to share your story? Get in touch!


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