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John Erwin, left, golfs with one of his sons.

A cancer diagnosis can cause disruptions for patients and their families, as medical visits become a part of the everyday routine. For one patient, those routine visits, while not his favorite, allow him to connect with a team of physicians, nurses and staff that help take some of the sting out of having head and neck cancer.

John Erwin, 61, of Burlington, North Carolina, was diagnosed with salivary duct carcinoma in 2019 after finding a lump under his jawbone while shaving. He consulted with a friend and UNC alum, Chap McQueen, MD, a physician in Burlington who recommended Erwin see UNC Lineberger’s Jeffrey Blumberg, MD, FACS, an ear, nose and throat surgical oncologist.

Blumberg performed a successful surgery in August, 2019, removing John Erwin’s primary salivary gland and duct, and subsequent scans showed no signs of cancer. Both John Erwin and his wife, Mary, 60, were pleasantly surprised by the results.

“We were absolutely thrilled with Dr. Blumberg. He is somebody we have tremendous respect for,” John Erwin said.

“We’ve seen him about three times while at UNC for infusions, and he always stops and catches up with us and asks how we’re doing,” Mary Erwin said.

After surgery, John Erwin started radiation and was pleased with the team taking care of him. “I saw the technicians five days a week, and you build a relationship with those guys. They were outstanding and made me feel as comfortable as possible. The team at UNC has been remarkable, to say the least.”

In February, 2020, a CT scan showed his cancer had metastasized to the liver and spine. “This was our low point. When you hear that {your cancer} has moved, it’s devastating,” John Erwin said.

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Erwin on a hike with his two sons.

The couple said the hardest part was talking about the diagnosis with their two sons, Will, 29 and Jack, 27. “Typically, our family tends to be pretty positive. We’ve been very candid with them about John’s diagnosis, but it took some time,” Mary Erwin said. “They’ve held us up.”

The UNC Lineberger team has also been supportive regarding insurance issues that caused profound strife for the couple. Blumberg and Shetal Patel, MD, John Erwin’s primary oncologist, both went to bat for him, calling the insurance company and making sure the necessary immunotherapy drugs and procedures were approved and covered.

“Dr. Patel gives you the impression that you are her only patient,” John Erwin said. “She is extremely thorough and shows compassion for me and my family. Dr. Patel has had to deliver “bad news” regarding my cancer on several occasions. She did so with direct communication but also with empathy that made it a little less troubling to hear.”

The Erwins also said they are grateful for the entire team at the North Carolina Basnight Cancer Hospital, the clinical home of UNC Lineberger, who show compassion and care when the couple are there for appointments.

“We have been so impressed with the nurses and the support staff,” Mary Erwin said. “It’s been amazing how they’ve become our friends. It makes a difference.”

“Through the months of numerous infusions, I almost look forward to going because I see familiar faces. I’m not saying I’m jumping for joy, but there’s a part of me that wants to interact and say ‘hello,’” John Erwin said.

While the cancer diagnosis has created some stumbling blocks for the family, the couple said they think they are now stronger than they were before 2019. “Our family is as tight now as it’s ever been,” John Erwin said. “We are spending more and more time together as a family, and as a parent, it is gratifying. My cancer diagnosis has pushed that along a little bit.

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John Erwin and his wife, Mary.

“Our marriage has also gotten stronger. We tend to not take each other for granted as much, and we enjoy the small things more.” And like any couple, they treasure the time they spend together and have found an even deeper appreciation for each other, while navigating the cancer journey.

“With Mary’s guidance I’m eating a little better. I’m drinking a little less, and I think there is a renewed sense of realizing that every day’s a gift and to enjoy the small victories,” John Erwin said.

“John’s attitude has been incredible,” Mary Erwin said. “People comment that he looks great, and he’s taking it all in stride, appreciating his life, and working as hard as ever”.

“We have learned that when you get a serious diagnosis, like mine, you have to focus on the things you can control” John Erwin said. “While easier said than done, we try to focus on our faith, our positive attitude and aligning ourselves with the best health care possible. This is our approach. That’s what we choose to focus on, not the things you can’t control.”

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