Cancers in the head and neck are considered to be among the most painful types. Imagine being unable to swallow, no longer enjoy food, even lose your voice. Then add to that the stigma these cancers may carry because, like lung cancer, they are often caused by smoking.
Still, the vast majority of head and neck cancer patients seeking care from Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center (DF/BWCC) are cured, according to Robert Haddad, MD, Disease Center Leader of the Head and Neck Oncology Program. The program offers much more than clinical research and innovative treatments for head and neck cancer; patients also receive a full spectrum of care and support, including speech therapy, psycho-social services, nutrition, and pain management. "We want our patients to recover a high level of functioning," says Sheila Walsh, RN, BSN program nurse.
When Ali Abbas Ali, an engineer and 36-time marathoner with two adult children, received a diagnosis of stage 3 throat cancer from his local hospital, he and his wife Monika came to DF/BWCC for a second opinion.
"A medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and surgeon entered the room together to speak with us," the lean and youthful 71-year-old recalls, "and we liked them right away. They really listened, welcomed our questions, and were not in a hurry."
Ali chose to receive his care at DF/BWCC, and followed the team's recommendations: 36 daily radiation treatments to his throat and seven weekly chemotherapy sessions – a grueling regimen, even for an athlete. "During the first week I thought, ‘This is nothing,'" he says. "By the second week, I began to admit it was difficult. By the third week I had a feeding tube placed because I could no longer swallow. My neck was so red and sore my wife gave me a scarf to wear. I am a strong person, yet there were times I couldn't take it."
At first, Ali was a "reluctant patient," recalls Walsh. "He thought life as he knew it would be over. But eventually he dedicated himself to his care, taking it on as a second job, continuing to work and run as much as he could."
Originally from Iraq, Ali came to the U.S. in 1970 on a scholarship to study at Tufts University, where he met his wife. During these years he also worked as a bartender and smoke and drank regularly. Then he found his passion: running. His love for the sport helped him bid cigarettes good-bye for good, and he went on to run three dozen marathons, qualifying for Boston 19 times.
"Throat cancer requires intense therapy," says his oncologist, Sewanti Limaye, MD. "Patients who have a passion or goal tend to handle the treatment better. Running was pivotal for Mr. Ali and has been instrumental in his quick recovery."
Ali has had more than his share of health challenges: open heart surgery in 1995, throat cancer in 2009. "Running kept me going," he recalls "Each time I would ask my doctors, ‘When can I run again?'"
A mechanical engineer with Massport (a public authority that manages the state's airports and seaports), Ali worked part-time during his treatment and is now full-time again. He feels well, except for losing his sense of taste and former pleasure in spicy food. There is no marathon in the immediate future, but he does run seven miles each morning at 4 a.m. with a group of friends in his hometown of Stoughton, Mass.
When Ali returns for check-ups with Limaye, he also visits his caregivers in Radiation Oncology. "When I am down, my care team lifts me up," he says. "They are like family."
Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center uses a multidisciplinary approach to head and neck cancers, offering a spectrum of services to help patients retain their quality of life.
Find out more about the Head and Neck Oncology Treatment Center
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, 450 Brookline Avenue, Boston, MA 02215 | Call us toll-free:
(866) 408-DFCI (3324)