The Precise Note
Published September 2021
Tom's Proton Therapy for Throat Cancer
When Tom Garrett sings, he loves to watch the reactions of the audience. Performing in 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 the 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 the initial cancer care team 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, but life altering," Tom said. "I thought, in today's day and age, there's got to be something else."
Tom searched online for "nonsurgical treatment for tonsillar cancer." The second result featured proton treatment. Tom lives in Bloomington, Illinois, two hours southwest of Chicago, so he reached out to the Northwestern Medicine Proton Center in Warrenville. Tom recalls that a nurse from Warrenville returned his call and visited with him a bit on the phone before letting him know the physicians would review his inquiry to see if the center could help. Soon he and his wife were headed to Warrenville. Tom was immediately struck by the positive attitude of everyone he met at the Northwestern Medicine Proton Center.
He described the attitude as, "We're going to beat this." From the receptionists to the technicians, everyone had an optimistic approach.
Tom's radiation oncologist recommended he have chemotherapy next door at Northwestern Medicine Cancer Center Warrenville along with the proton therapy. The plan would give Tom an excellent chance at a cure with fewer long-term side effects affecting his voice and swallowing compared to surgery.
"I decided I was going to put my faith in Northwestern Medicine and go from there," Tom said. "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 that are located near other vital organs.
Tom never experienced pain during his proton therapy treatment. However, because of the precision of the treatment, part of the proton therapy process involves wearing a mask that helps stabilize the head. When Tom was fitted for the mask, he experienced claustrophobia unlike anything he had felt before.
"I consider myself a pretty tough guy," Tom said. "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 recalls being very close to throwing his hands up and saying he couldn't do it, but the staff talked him through it until he was more comfortable and made some adjustments to help with the claustrophobia.
"Everybody was really great to me," Tom said. "It was as good of an experience as you can get under the circumstances."
Tom went on to receive 33 proton therapy treatments. Just seven weeks after his final session, he performed a Las Vegas show. At his first consultation, he'd asked for a guarantee that he would be able to make that performance. On stage, Tom gave a heartfelt shoutout to the physicians at Northwestern Medicine.
Looking back 5 years later
Five years after his last proton therapy treatment, Tom spends his time with what filled him with hope during treatment: performing the music he loves for people who love it. 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 a 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.
In 2019, Tom performed 53 shows within 10 weeks all over the United States. In 2021, the Happy Together Tour took Tom all over the nation and included a stop near the Northwestern Medicine Proton Center, where some of his care team came to see him perform.
Even though Tom's been a singer since he was 15, 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.