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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: A close call

by Mike Masterson | January 17, 2023 at 4:23 a.m.


Miss me yet? Thankfully I survived, valued readers, and much, since the moment they slipped the mask on my face and asked me to breathe deeply, has been a continuous blur.

As I faded away, Dr. James Y. Suen of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences went toe-to-toe with The Beast that for months had relentlessly refused to release its potentially deadly grip on my neck.

Seven hours later, the exhausted, world-renowned 82-year-old surgeon and his team, consisting of surgical nurses, anesthesiologists, Drs. Courtney Hunter and Matt Solverson, sewed me up and claimed what he firmly believed had been a tedious and hard-fought knockout.

"Your surgery, while a success, was a difficult one for sure," he said, adding that, based on its size and location, he'd have been surprised, had the squamous cell cancer not been removed now, if I'd have survived another year.

Bear in mind this was in addition to enduring 35 radiation and six chemotherapy sessions that ultimately were unsuccessful in completely slaying The Beast.

Not, that is, until it faced Dr. Suen and his determined team. Hard to believe this kindly man so respected worldwide for his skill and knowledge says he believed in his youth he wasn't smart enough to become a physician.

As you might expect, The Beast wasn't vanquished without leaving deep and permanent scars across what a year ago had been my normal life. That was back when I still foolishly took too much for granted.

In May I noticed the lump in my left jawline lymph node that Dr. Paul Neis of Mountain Home diagnosed as a rapidly growing squamous cell cancer.

By late July when treatments began, the tumor had swelled the size of a plum and was beginning to spread behind my ear.

It was then I learned the radiation oncologist doesn't routinely follow the progression of a tumor's shrinkage until the full treatment has ended. By that point on Sept. 6, I could feel that, although it had diminished somewhat, a walnut-sized hard lump remained. A subsequent PET scan revealed my best hope was surgery.

And so it came to pass that everything I hoped would not happen in my struggle did.

At UAMS I awoke to find smiling family and friends waiting in a recovery room, all of whom were anxious to hear Dr. Suen explain how well the surgery had gone.

Dr. Suen felt certain he'd removed all The Beast, even down to performing at least 30 biopsies in the margins of healthy tissues surrounding the thing as it pushed against my internal carotid artery en route to the cranium.

Those results were negative, telling him it hadn't invaded beyond the surface of my internal carotid.

He methodically scraped The Beast from the artery after it had claimed its outer companion, which meant it was only a matter of time before the internal carotid faced a similar fate.

While it appears for the time being that my existence continues thanks to Dr. Suen's skill and determination and that of his team, my world has become noticeably different in what years remain.

Although he had to remove both my left exterior carotid and internal jugular vein after finding they'd been hopelessly invaded for months, I thankfully was left with enough vessels to provide adequate blood supply to the brain.

The Beast also had encircled nerves that had to be sacrificed, including the vagus nerve that controls movement on the left side of my tongue and mouth, swallowing, lifting my left arm above the shoulder and leaving a smaller pupil in my left eye.

Dr. Suen also injected my larynx with a pasty solution that leaves me with a very raspy voice he says he can improve on later.

There will always be a numb area above and behind my left ear. My life during the final years promises to be challenging in many ways.

Dr. Neis will remove the drainage tube from my neck in a week or so. In six or seven weeks, Dr. Suen will order immunotherapy treatments here in Harrison to make sure the thing doesn't resurrect from its apparent demise (like in some Jason or Michael Myers film).

I'd asked Dr. Suen to photograph The Beast once it was splayed on the table. I wanted to finally lay eyes on the malignancy that has forever altered me.

Jeanetta aptly said it looked like a blood-sucking alien that could sprout spindly legs and sprint away to invade another innocent person.

You don't ever want to invite one into your neck and head by using tobacco or acquiring the human papillomavirus (HPV), which Dr. Suen said has triggered an epidemic of squamous cancers.

Meanwhile, I've now joined the unenviable club of such cancer victims as Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas, Ulysses S. Grant and Sigmund Freud.

Thank you again for your deeply appreciated outpouring of cards, messages, prayers and well wishes.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]


Print Headline: A close call

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