In February of 2012, Richard, a junior engineering major at North Carolina State University, was having difficulty chewing his food and opening his mouth. A dentist told him he was probably clenching his teeth. In May he left for a six-week engineering internship in China. During the flight he experienced the sensation of water in his ear. Three weeks into his internship he was finding it more and more difficult to open his mouth and the water in his ear remained.
He went to see a doctor who looked down his throat, saw that half of it was closed, and ordered an MRI. Richard flew home and saw an ENT physician who referred him to UNC where Dr. Mark Weissler performed a biopsy and determined it was cancer, a parotid tumor (the parotid gland is the largest of the salivary glands).
Richard’s father came with him to the UNC appointment and then his whole family gathered to support him, flying in from Sweden and New York. They met with Drs. Weissler, medical oncologist Juneko Grilley-Olson and radiation oncologist Bhisham Chera to develop a treatment plan.
Due to the location of the tumor, surgery was ruled out. Instead the team proposed a 40-week course of chemotherapy followed by 28 days of radiation.
Richard explains, “They suggested that I take a year off from school because I’d be really tired and not able to do as much as I usually could. For the most part I just kept going. Throughout the course of treatment, I was able to go to some classes and to the gym. I usually scheduled my chemo treatment for Fridays. If it was a three-drug day, I would take it easy, and on Monday I was pretty much back to normal activities and classes.”
Richard had been a defense player on the NCSU roller hokey team for three years and played tennis as well. “I definitely think that me being in good shape and trying to keep up my strength and conditioning helped out through treatments. It helped keep my mind off cancer and something to work for.”
When he finished therapy in April he had a plan for how to celebrate. His brother had skydived and enjoyed it. “I asked myself, ‘What can I do to celebrate that’s something really cool and out of the ordinary?’ I decided on a sky dive with my friends. It was an incredible experience.”
He is now learning to scuba dive. “I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it because of the location of the tumor and the problems with equalizing when you go down, but I haven’t had any trouble, so I’m really looking forward to keep going with that.” He’ll begin his final year of school this fall.
Richard says, “My care at UNC was as good as I could have asked for. Everyone at UNC was amazing. Whether it was at registration or getting my port accessed or the nurses in infusion and my doctors as well they always had my best interest in mind and I'm forever grateful to each and every one of them.”
Richard’s perspective on his cancer experience is positive. “I guess I had a ‘grab the bull by the horns’ attitude. I know when people get cancer, they often think the worst. I felt, ‘Let’s get me better.’ That was the only outcome.”
After graduation, Richard would like to work in the automobile or aerospace industry with companies such as BMW, GE, or Boeing for a few years, and then he plans on furthering his education with an MBA.