'I Feel Great Today'
Surviving stage 4 head and neck cancer without surgery
Wiping the sweat off his face after a 10-mile run in 2009, Craig Martin discovered the lump under his left jaw. Suspecting a sinus infection, Martin tried two rounds of antibiotics before seeking the advice of an ear, nose and throat physician. The diagnosis was grim: the 46-year-old arborist from Libertyville, Ill., had stage 4 tonsil cancer.
After extensive research, Martin chose the University of Chicago Medicine for its vast experience treating advanced head and neck cancers and excellent survival rates. "The team at the University of Chicago gave me an 85 percent chance of beating my cancer, which was a lot better odds than the 60 percent chance another oncologist gave me," said the father of three.
The multidisciplinary team is nationally known for pioneering a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation therapy that effectively treats stage 4 head and neck cancers 80 percent of the time. "Sacrificing a larynx or tongue through surgery should never be a first step to treating cancer," said Daniel J. Haraf, MD, medical director of radiation oncology.
Martin’s treatment consisted of weekly chemotherapy for 15 weeks and 50 treatments of intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). Haraf was one of the first physicians in Chicago to offer IMRT, which shapes the radiation field to the contour of tumors by altering the beam hundreds of times during a treatment. "With IMRT, we can target tumors with high doses of radiation and limit radiation to tissues and organs we want to spare, such as salivary glands or the spinal cord," he said.
Surgery can be the preferred treatment for small, early-stage lesions. "For the newly diagnosed patient, we have every tool to remove the cancer while preserving function of their organs. Endoscopic laser surgery, new reconstructive techniques and robotic surgery allow us to remove tumors through the mouth instead of opening up the neck," said Kerstin Stenson, MD, who directs the medical center’s head and neck surgery program.
For patients with recurrent cancer, options often include surgery with or without a second round of full-dose radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy -- a treatment few cancer centers offer. But Haraf, one of the world’s leading authorities on reirradiation, has a 20-year track record of curing recurrent head and neck cancer. “Experience makes all the difference in getting successful outcomes,” he said.
Martin, whose cancer went into remission last fall, is back to serious running and biking. "I have no limitations, and I feel great today," he said. "But even when I was at my sickest, the team at the University of Chicago made me feel strong mentally because of their confidence that my treatment would work."