Cancer Treatment

Dealing With a Second Cancer Diagnosis

How to cope when you hear the words “you have cancer” again.

By Jessica Lawlor

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Fighting cancer once is difficult enough, but for patients faced with a second primary diagnosis, life can become even more complicated.

That’s why the news of a second diagnosis hit Michael Hill, a 41-year-old Springfield, Missouri native, hard in 2017.

A Shock to The System

Michael had testicular cancer in 2013, but caught it early, undergoing abdominal surgery, with no need for additional treatment.

Eagerly awaiting his five-year mark and celebration in May of 2018, Michael moved on with life. He enjoyed time with his wife Brenna and their two kids, and steadily moved up the ladder in his job at an auto parts company.

But in February 2017, Michael encountered a roadblock.

“I was at a work conference in St. Louis and I wasn’t feeling well,” Michael explains. “I thought I had a fever, but then I noticed a lump on my neck. I thought it might be strep throat, but figured I’d see a doctor when I got home.”

Indeed, Michael’s doctor prescribed him an antibiotic, but after 10 days, the lump had grown.

“I had a suspicion something wasn’t right,” Michael says.

He went for a biopsy that came back inconclusive, and eventually ended up being referred to an ear nose and throat specialist. The doctor recommended a wait and see approach, chalking the lump up to an infection.

By then it was well into March, and Michael felt uneasy. The following month, he underwent surgery to remove the lump. A few days later, he received a phone call from his doctor.

“You have throat cancer,” the doctor told Michael. He recommended another surgery, plus a neck dissection to remove lymph nodes.

“The news hit me pretty hard,” Michael admits. “You can think you’re ready for a second diagnosis, but you’re not.”

The Importance of Getting a Second Opinion

Michael did know one thing was for sure: he was going to get a second opinion.

“It was important to get a second opinion because I didn’t know that my diagnosis was accurate,” he explains. “When you’re a patient, to me, you’re a customer. You’ve got options; explore them.”

After receiving a recommendation for a surgery with a long recovery time, Michael set out to find other options. A family member recommended Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Embracing New Technologies: The Medrobotics Flex® Robotic System

Within a week of calling CTCA®, Michael arrived in Tulsa. After three days of appointments and testing, his care team had formulated a plan of action that included an innovative new robotic surgery system for head and neck cancers.

According to Brad Mons, DO, Head and Neck Surgeon at CTCA in Tulsa, the robotic surgery system is intended for robot-assisted visualization and surgical site access to the oropharynx, hypopharynx and larynx in adults over 22 years old.

Dr. Mons says this minimally invasive surgery system offers many benefits, including, “shorter hospital stays, reduced post-surgical pain, quicker recovery, less scarring, less damage to tissues and muscles critical to eating and other daily activities a faster return to normal activities.”

Michael had surgery in May 2017, and was back to work within three weeks.

“It was pretty amazing,” he remembers. “The first few weeks of recovery were rough, but I was prepped and ready. My care team gave me a whole plan for battling it going forward.”

Michael needed no further chemotherapy or radiation, and now returns to CTCA once a month for checkups.

Managing a Second Diagnosis

Not surprisingly, a second diagnosis can be discouraging.

David Wakefield, PhD, a psychologist at CTCA in Tulsa says that patients are often more impacted by a second diagnosis than they were by the first.

“The feedback they give me is usually that on the first diagnosis they had no idea what a treatment journey would look like and how difficult it would be. Now on the second diagnosis, they know how tough cancer treatment is and don’t want to go through it again.”

Dr. Wakefield encourages patients to tap into the resources of pastoral care, physical therapy, the nutrition and naturopathic medicine departments to help them during the journey.

“I remind patients that the same coping skills that they used to deal with the first cancer they can use to deal with the new cancer. They have survived the first time they can do it again,” he explains. “I remind them that they are wiser now. They know what it takes to get well and we can help them get well again.”

The Power of Positivity

A week before undergoing surgery, Michael and his wife attended a Tom Petty concert. As the familiar rifts of “I Won’t Back Down” played, Michael’s wife Brenna said to him, “This is your song. You won’t back down.”

Michael took Brenna’s words seriously.

“Mental state is huge when it comes to fighting something you can’t physically take care of yourself,” he says. “You have to stay positive.”

To patients facing a second diagnosis, Michael offers the following advice: “It’s not a death sentence. It’s a setback—a bump in the road. It doesn’t mean it’s over by any stretch of the imagination. Don’t quit.”

No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.