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Pathways to Discovery: Summer 2013

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Head and Neck Cancer Experts at the UCCCC Successfully Treat Oral Cancer without Surgery

About a year ago, a persistent sore throat and earache led Vince Draa of Libertyville to see his family practitioner, who then referred him to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. A scope examination revealed a tumor at the base of his tongue, and a biopsy confirmed that Vince had squamous cell carcinoma that had partially spread to the lymph nodes. The 56-year-old father of two teenagers knew that he needed to act immediately and find the best place for treatment. “This decision was a matter of life or death,” said Ana, Vince’s wife. “We knew we had to cast a national net.”

After seeking opinions at Mayo Clinic and M. D. Anderson, the Draas decided to entrust Vince’s care to experts at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center (UCCCC). The UCCCC head and neck cancer team is renowned for its highly effective approach to treatment involving chemotherapy and intensity-modulated radiation therapy, often sparing patients from surgery.

His team included nationally recognized experts Kerstin Stenson, MD, professor of surgery and director of the Department of Surgery’s Head and Neck Program; Ezra Cohen, MD, associate professor of medicine and UCCCC associate director for education; and Daniel Haraf, MD, MS, professor of radiation and cellular oncology and medical director of radiation oncology.

Vince underwent six weeks of induction chemotherapy, followed by 10 weeks of combined chemoradiation therapy in the hospital. Ana stayed by his side, encouraging him to eat even when painful sores developed in his mouth. Friends and neighbors pitched in by cooking meals for the family. Vince also drew strength from oral cancer survivors who related their experiences.

Then, the week before Christmas, a positron emission tomography scan showed suspicious activity in Vince’s lymph nodes. Ana recalled that Vince’s doctors “moved heaven and earth” to schedule a biopsy so that the family would not spend Christmas with Vince’s fate unknown. To their relief, the lymph nodes were inflamed due to a condition called sarcoidosis, which usually resolves on its own. Subsequent scans and tests have shown no sign of the cancer.

Ana remarked that everyone involved in Vince’s care came together as a team to help him pull through. “Coming to the UCCCC, I expected the technical expertise, but what I didn’t expect was how much everyone cared,” Vince said. “They went above and beyond.” For example, Dr. Cohen penned a letter of support for the Draas’ college-bound son.

“We believed that the UCCCC is where Vince’s chances of surviving this were highest, and looking at him today, I know we made a good decision,” said Ana. Next, the couple plans to participate in the Oral Cancer Foundation’s Walk for Awareness– Northern Illinois in the fall.

As for now, Vince only returns to the UCCCC for follow-up visits. Looking back on his journey, he is amazed. “I didn’t think I would be this well off a year ago.”