Father's Day Tribute

In the midst of June birthdays and surprises and graduations, I nearly forgot the most significant milestone of the month. And today, Father’s Day, is the perfect time to honor it.

My dad was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer five years ago this month. He was a smoker for 30+ years, and like many before him and many since him, he tried to quit numerous times. But he just couldn’t kick the awful addiction that is nicotine.

In the spring of 2004, Dad’s voice began to go hoarse. The family doctor diagnosed him with severe acid reflex disease. And so Dad ingested a purple pill daily and slept with his head propped on pillows and a humidifier on his bedside table.

After more than a year with no sign of progress — and persuasion from a very persistent wife — Dad sought a second opinion.

I remember that day in June. I was sitting on my old slipcovered couch in my third floor efficiency in State College. I was nervously nibbling on a piece of chocolate with my phone by my side. When it rang, and I heard my mother’s quivering voice on the other end, I knew the results of the biopsy without having to ask.

It was stage IV laryngeal cancer, and aggressive treatment began immediately.

Dad faced seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I took off work nearly every Monday during those two months to drive Dad down I-83 to Baltimore.

{Inner Harbor, Summer 2005}

In the beginning, while he was still feeling well, we stopped at Inner Harbor for crab cakes and fried oysters or at the movie theater for a matinée. But before long he lost his ability to taste and swallow. The chemo drugs made him nauseous, and the pain medication made him lethargic. We had a very long and difficult journey ahead of us.

That Thanksgiving was a quiet one with immediate family only. Dad insisted on roasting and carving a turkey, even though he could not enjoy it.

And Christmas was much the same. We were all anxiously counting down the final days of the year to find out whether Dad’s treatments had been successful.

{Christmas, 2005}

Unfortunately, we learned in early January that they were not. The combination of radiation and chemotherapy had not been enough to remove the cancer from his larynx. While the news was not what we had hoped to hear, there was another option: surgery.

Dad had a full laryngectomy on February 1, 2006. It was incredibly scary to see my dad in that hospital bed. He had dropped to just over 130 lbs that winter, and his skin looked pale and fragile. His hands had lost the proud callouses they had gained from years of sanding and staining wood, hammering nails, and shoveling dirt. Also, there was a hole the size of a quarter in his neck.

{February, 2006}

The surgeon had completely removed the site of Dad’s cancer — the larynx, which serves a greater purpose than providing a voice. It separates the trachea (breathing tube) from the esophagus (eating tube). And so when it is removed, breathing must occur through a hole in the neck, called a stoma.

In the days following surgery, Dad learned to breathe through his stoma and properly clean and care for it. Despite not having a voice, he still managed to make the doctors and nurses laugh with sarcastic scribbles on his Magna Doodle — that Mom had purchased just prior to his surgery. (Speaking of my mother, she’s pretty amazing, too. The patience and endurance she demonstrated during that time in our lives still astonishes me.)

But there were a few bumps along Dad’s road to recovery. Specifically, he developed fistulas — tears in the suture site caused by weak, radiated cells. The fear was that if the tears were not repaired, he would never be able to swallow. Rather than having to surgically repair the fistulas, Dad’s surgeon recommended he receive hyperbaric oxygen treatment.

Basically, Dad had to wear a space helmet and sit in a pressurized “submarine” for two hours a day, five days a week, for eight weeks. I’m not kidding.

Thankfully the “dives” did their job. As the fistulas slowly closed, Dad was able to ditch the Magna Doodle and learn to speak with his new voice prosthesis, specifically designed for him. It’s the size of your pinky nail and slides into place between the trachea and esophagus. To speak, Dad breathes in through his stoma and pushes the prosthesis valve to force the air into the esophagus. It’s called esophageal speech.

{Final hyperbaric oxygen treatment, April 2006}

And following a procedure to stretch his esophagus (which had shrunk during radiation), Dad was finally able to swallow again. For eight months, his only nourishment had come from a can that was dumped down the feeding tube that connected to his stomach through a hole above his belly button. You can imagine that simple foods like oatmeal, scrambled eggs, ice cream, grapes, and cheese must have tasted like a fiesta in his mouth!

And you can appreciate our absolute gratitude when Dad was able to share his first full meal with us following my brother’s graduation from Penn State in May, 2006.

{Penn State graduation, May 2006}

Roughly 10,000 Americans are diagnosed with laryngeal cancer each year, and only about 3,000 have full laryngectomies. But my dad has never been one to follow a crowd.

In the five years since his diagnosis, Dad has regained his suntan, his sweet tooth, and his calloused hands. And he’s settled into his “new normal.” His voice may be raspier and his hair may be longer, but he’s Dad. And he’s here.

{Vermont, 2007}

{OBX, 2008}

{August, 2009; credit Robert Winton}

Since 2005, Dad has walked in the Relay for Life with other cancer survivors, and he’s visited numerous elementary school classrooms to discuss the harmful effects of smoking.

{Relay for Life, 2007}

He’s consumed ales and fish and chips with his son in London.

{London, 2010}

He’s watched his youngest daughter dive and jump and graduate from high school.

{State Track and Field Meet, 2010}

He’s walked his oldest daughter down the stairs on her Wedding Day.

{August, 2009; credit Robert Winton}

And he has danced. Oh, has he danced.

{August, 2009; credit Robert Winton}

He’s gained a second son.

{OBX, 2008}

He’s celebrated 30 years of marriage to his high school sweetheart.

{Spring, 2009}

And he’s gotten lots and lots of wet puppy dog kisses.

{Spring, 2010}

Thank you, Dad, for teaching me how to whistle through a blade of grass and how to hit the sweet spot on a golf ball and how to eat a raw oyster. And for showing me how to be a fighter and how to live life.

Cheers to you on this Father’s Day and many, many more to come. I love you!

13 thoughts on “Father's Day Tribute

  1. …and you apologised for not sending me a Father’s Day card ? There’s not a better recognition than you’ve just given. Oh, and thanks for the tears. What a wonderful story some pictures and comments can make. Thank you.

  2. Emily,
    What an amazing, inspirational story of courage and determination (and with such a happy ending!). Your dad is a very special person and it’s a blessing to know him and have him part of our family circle! Thanks for sharing this wonderful tribute to him! God bless you all!

  3. Thank you all. This is a story I’ve been wanting to tell for awhile. It’s so hard to believe it’s been five years already. Live strong, Dad!

  4. Emily,

    Thank you so much for sharing this story. I’m all weepy sitting here at my desk at work and I don’t care who sees! What an amazing tribute to your wonderful dad!

    Reading your post, especially where you were driving to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for his treatment, brought me back to early 2006, when my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma. When he started treatments (also at Johns Hopkins), the cancer had spread to his liver and the prognosis was not good. He went through multiple rounds of 2-week inpatient treatments, and they were brutal. By Thanksgiving of that year, however, we learned that he had completely beaten the odds and was cancer-free. I don’t have to tell you how special that Thanksgiving was! No one should have to go through this to learn what is really important, but I’m so glad we are able to appreciate everything now.

    Best wishes to you and your family, and especially your amazing Dad!

  5. This is such a sweet post! My grandfather died of laryngeal cancer, so this issue hits close to home. I am glad your Dad was able to rebound so beautifully and it looks like he is living life to the fullest!

  6. Wow, stories like these put life in perspective. Thank you for sharing this. I just stumbled upon your blog and this post captivated me. Your dad must be proud and vice versa.

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