Kevin Lam was worried. At 42, he was in tune with his body. He worked out every day, maintained a healthy diet and was rarely sick. But in the summer of 2020, he started experiencing unusual symptoms such as ongoing blocked sinuses. Over the course of a year, he went many times to his primary care provider in Redmond, Wash., but they couldn’t find anything wrong and attributed his symptoms to allergies. Still, Kevin had a strong feeling that wasn’t right.
When he discovered a hard lump in his neck a year later, Kevin insisted on a biopsy. His suspicions were later confirmed when his biopsy revealed that he had stage IV nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is a cancer that forms in the upper part of the throat, behind the nose. In stage IV, the cancer has spread, involving lymph nodes or other parts of the head and neck, such as the brain. In Kevin, the cancer had spread to at least four lymph nodes in his neck.
Kevin decided early on that feeling sorry for himself was not going to serve him well. Instead, he dove into research to better understand his situation and available options, including proton therapy. He was interested in proton therapy because of its targeted delivery and minimized radiation exposure to healthy tissue.
Online, Kevin found another nasopharyngeal patient, who had successfully gone through proton therapy, to learn about what to expect. While researching, he also came across a way to reach out to Navy SEALs for advice on how to regulate fear and turn it into action and asked for techniques to help push through difficult tasks. Kevin knew they routinely face potentially life-threatening situations, so reaching out to them seemed obvious.
“Never be afraid to seek help or advice. It made a huge difference for me,” he says. “Most people want to help; you just need to ask.”
Although Kevin had done the research on proton therapy — and liked what he saw — his oncologist recommended standard radiation. A week before he was supposed to start, something still didn’t feel right. Kevin felt mentally strong and physically prepared, but he hadn’t felt listened to as a patient. He decided to get a second opinion at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, which he knew ranked very high in both patient satisfaction and clinical expertise. They also had a proton therapy facility, which was the radiation treatment he preferred to pursue.
“After my first visit to Fred Hutch, I knew that it was where I was going to get my treatment,” says Kevin. “These were the people I needed on my team. From the staff who greeted me at the front, to the doctors and the care teams, the level of care, authenticity and professionalism was above and beyond.”
Within a week of his initial consultation with Cristina Rodriguez, MD, he started his first chemotherapy appointment. Kevin’s treatment included six rounds of doublet chemotherapy (receiving two drugs at the same time to stop the tumor growth) and two months of simultaneous proton therapy radiation.
At the proton therapy facility, Kevin saw Jay Liao, MD, a radiation oncologist who specializes in head and neck cancers. They reviewed treatment options for his locally advanced nasopharyngeal cancer, which involved the skull base. Because these cancers are complex and often close to the brain, brainstem, vision and hearing structures, the precision of proton therapy makes it an ideal treatment option.
Treatment involves a careful balance of destroying a cancer in a tough location while trying to minimize the risk of side effects. Many patients with Kevin’s type of cancer can be effectively treated with intensive chemotherapy and radiation therapy. An important goal is reducing the risk of long-term complications of treatment.
“Our proton facility has a lot of experience treating this complex tumor and recently published the largest North American study using modern intensity-modulated proton therapy (IMPT) for this cancer,” says Liao. “When I first met Kevin, he was understandably anxious about his cancer diagnosis and the uncertainty about how this would impact his life. I was impressed with Kevin’s positive spirit and his resolve all throughout treatment. Fortunately, he had a great response to treatment and has recovered well.”
Kevin experienced side effects mostly in the last two weeks of treatment and during his recovery. He lost his appetite and taste, had occasional fatigue, and developed neuropathy in his fingers and toes. A year later, most of those symptoms have resolved, and any lingering ones are minimal.
“It was very gratifying when Kevin sent a video to our team after completing treatment showing him getting back to his regular activities and doing an impressive pull-up,” says Liao.
Kevin finished his treatment in the spring of 2021, and today, his cancer is in full remission. “I have a second chance at an amazing life with my wife, dogs, and close friends, thanks to Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Liao and my incredible care team,” says Kevin.
If you have been diagnosed with cancer and would like to speak with a patient mentor like Kevin did, please email email@example.com.
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