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Overcoming throat cancer

Robot-assisted surgery speeds recovery

December 18, 2013
Brad Hadley

Brad Hadley is a health-conscious 54-year-old who has a successful career in public service and a passion for golf. Nothing about him fits the stereotype of men with throat cancer — typically heavy smokers and drinkers in their 70s.

So when Hadley discovered a small lump in his neck two years ago, his doctor assumed it was only a minor infection. The lump didn’t respond to antibiotics, though, and Hadley was eventually referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

“An MRI scan and a needle biopsy showed I had throat cancer,” Hadley says. “I was speechless.”

He turned to Dr. William Armstrong, chair of the UCI Health Department of Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery for a second opinion.

Armstrong confirmed the diagnosis, explaining that over the last three decades, head and neck cancers have become much more common among men like Hadley: successful, middle-aged husbands and fathers who don’t smoke or drink heavily.

Most of these cancers are caused by a strain of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is also responsible for many cases of cervical cancer in women. In the throat, HPV often affects the tonsils or base of the tongue and causes few symptoms in the early stages.

Hadley’s cancer started in his right tonsil, but by the time he saw Armstrong, it had spread to nearby lymph nodes. He would need not only surgery to remove the tumor, but also radiation and chemotherapy to kill the growing cancer cells.

Fortunately, Hadley had chosen UCI Health. Armstrong specializes in robot-assisted surgery — a less aggressive approach that enables surgeons to operate with more precision and flexibility, especially in anatomically challenging areas like the throat.

“Surgical treatment for throat cancer used to involve splitting the lip and cutting the jaw bone, which affected a person’s ability to swallow and speak," Armstrong says. "Now, using the surgical robot, we can access tumors through incisions in the mouth, leaving patients with better function.”.

Still, he stresses that radiation and chemotherapy can also cause significant damage. “You’re irradiating the throat, tongue and neck, so all the areas involved in swallowing are affected. Chemotherapy makes the radiation more effective, but also more toxic,” he explains.

Despite the doctors’ expertise, Hadley’s treatment was challenging. The radiation blistered his throat, making talking and swallowing temporarily impossible and requiring use of a feeding tube. But with his cancer now in remission, his energy is returning and he’s working and playing golf again.

“I can’t say enough about Dr. Armstrong and everyone at UCI Health who took care of me during my treatment, especially Dr. Chaitali Nangia, my oncologist, and Dr. Jason Wong, my radiologist,” Hadley says. “They’re all leaders in their fields and are compassionate and caring people.”

“Throat cancers caused by HPV are easier to treat than those caused by smoking, but only if caught early,” Armstrong says. “Brad was fortunate that his cancer hadn’t spread beyond the lymph nodes. His early diagnosis made a difference.”

To learn more about expert care for head and neck cancers, visit www.ucirvinehealth.org/head-neck or call toll free 714-456-7017.