Patient Stories

The Precise Right Note

Tom’s Proton Therapy for Throat Cancer

When Tom sings, he loves to watch the reactions of the audience. Performing with the band The Classics IV®, he sings hit records from the late 1960s and early 70s that evoke a special time for the people at their shows. When Tom was first diagnosed with throat cancer, his initial care team recommended a surgery that could permanently damage his vocal chords. And that just didn’t sound right to Tom.

Tom met with that first cancer care team in the spring of 2016 after swelling on the right side of his throat led his primary care physician to recommend a CT scan and biopsy that, in turn, revealed tonsillar cancer. The experience was positive, but he left with a cancer diagnosis and a scheduled date for trans oral surgery, followed by standard radiation and possibly chemotherapy. Tom is a professional entertainer and singer and the side effects of such a treatment plan could affect his singing, not to mention his ability to swallow. Still, Tom made the arrangements for surgery. A few days later, when the gravity of his diagnosis and treatment set in, he became less comfortable with the implications.

“I think it takes a couple days to really register that you have cancer. And for me, it was not only life threatening, even if I survived, life altering,” Tom said. “I thought, in today’s day and age, there’s got to be something else.”

So, Tom went online and typed a search for “non-surgical treatment for tonsillar cancer.” The second result was proton treatment. Tom lives in Bloomington, Illinois, two hours southwest of Chicago. He reached out to the Northwestern Medicine Chicago Proton Center in Warrenville.

“A nurse from Warrenville called me back and visited with me for a little bit on the phone. She said that the doctors review these requests every day and if they think you are a good candidate for proton therapy, we’ll let you know in a couple of days,” Tom remembered. “So they called me and agreed to see me and my wife. We then headed to Warrenville in April 2016.”

Tom was immediately struck by the positive attitude of everyone he met at the Chicago Proton Center. It was an attitude of “we’re going to beat this.” From the receptionists to the technicians, everyone had an optimistic approach – including and especially the radiation oncologist Tom met with: John Han-Chih Chang, MD.

“Truly what took anywhere else off the table was meeting with Dr. Chang. His attitude, his approach,” Tom said. “You know – he’s not a doom and gloom kind of guy. He came to the door with a smile on his face, introduced himself, we talked. He said, I feel pretty confident we can do this.”

“Our treatment plan was for chemotherapy at the Northwestern Medicine Cancer Center located next door and radiation with protons here at the Chicago Proton Center,” said Dr. Chang, who is also the director of education at the Chicago Proton Center. “I believed this would give Tom an excellent chance and cure with much fewer long-term side effects to the voice quality and swallowing function compared to any surgery.”

Tom said, “I just decided that I was going to put my faith in him and go from there. So that’s what I did.”

Proton therapy is an innovative radiation treatment that uses protons to precisely target cancers and tumors, delivering more treatment to the target area and less to the surrounding healthy tissues. The benefits are particularly profound for cancers like Tom’s, which are located near other vital organs. However, on account of the precision of the treatment, part of the proton therapy process involves wearing a mask that helps stabilize the head. When Tom was first fitted for the mask, he experienced claustrophobia unlike anything he had felt before.

“I consider myself a pretty tough guy. I grew up in a tough neighborhood in St. Louis. I used to be a police officer. I’ve been around a little bit. But I really struggled with the radiation mask,” Tom explained. “But we talked it out. I talked to Dr. Chang and with the technicians back in the treatment room. They worked with me and got me to a place where I was a little more comfortable. I was very close to just throwing my hands up. Truly, I was just going to say, I can’t do this. I don’t like to do that but I just didn’t feel like I could do it, and instead, they agreed to do what they could to make some adjustments so that I wasn’t as claustrophobic in the mask. Everybody was really great to me, from Dr. Chang on down. It was as good experience as you can get under the circumstances.”

Tom went on to receive 33 treatments of proton therapy and just seven weeks after his final session, he was performing a Las Vegas show – the date of which he had asked Dr. Chang to promise he could make during their first consultation – giving heartfelt shout-out to the doctors at Northwestern Medicine.

These days, Tom feels great. He estimates his voice is close to 100 percent again and the meaningfulness of each performance underscores his experience every time he takes the stage with the Classics IV. At another recent show, a man approached Tom. His wife couldn’t come down to the stage because she was in a wheelchair and very ill, but they both wanted Tom to know that “Traces,” the group’s biggest hit, was their wedding song. It was the couple’s first opportunity to see the Classics IV live and it meant so much to them to see the group and relive that moment.

Tom’s been a singer since he was 15 and the reactions, the emotional journey he sees his audience take, never gets old. And thanks to proton therapy, for Tom and The Classics IV, the show really can go on.