June is National Cancer Survivors Month

By Pamela Tom | HPVANDME Founder

This quarter’s blog focuses on living as a cancer survivor and is published in two parts. 

In Part One, we explore the challenges faced by HPV throat cancer survivors when they complete treatment.

Part Two features an interview with Mike West, a HPV throat cancer survivor who shares what life is like for him—five years after treatment.

The experiences of HPV throat cancer survivors provide valuable insights on how to enhance their recovery process. 

In 2019, HPVANDME met Mike West, an attorney in San Diego, who had recently completed treatment for HPV-related throat cancer. Mike decided to share his story to help others cancer patients who would come behind him. 

His secondary mission: educate parents about the HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccine helps prevent six types of HPV cancers.

Now five years post treatment and in cancer remission, Mike tells us about his current health, his lessons learned, and his optimism for other HPV throat cancer survivors. 

HPVANDME: How are you feeling today? 

Mike West: I am so thankful and blessed to report that I feel fantastic! I am stronger physically, emotionally, and spiritually than I have ever been in my life. There are times of course when my mind will drift to some of those darker moments of my treatment journey when I was not doing so well, but I fight those tendencies by reflecting on how far I have come, by reminding myself that I am a survivor and not a victim, and by soaking in the appreciation that challenge gave me to recognize how beautiful my life is every day that I am given this second chance to live it.


HPVANDME: How many years post treatment? 

Mike West: I crossed my 5 year mark in December 2022, getting to finally hear that amazing word “cured” after being in remission for 5 years post treatment.


HPVANDME: What do you credit to your recovery? 

Mike West: My faith in God first and foremost, the support of so many people, wonderful medical care providers, a reflective mindset in focusing on the positive instead of the negative, healthy diet, rigorous exercise, hydration, a firm belief that I would get better, and SLEEP!


HPVANDME: What advice do you have for new survivors, people who have recently finished treatment and are experiencing the harsh side effects? 

Mike West: When you cross the finish line of treatment, we all seem to naturally think that we will suddenly “get better.” That is unfortunately not the reality and can truly cause a patient to get depressed when the side effects are at their worst because it seems impossible to envision a life where you will ever “feel good” again.


Managing Expectations

Instead, what we quickly realize is that our bodies initially get worse as the cumulative side effects progressively continue to impact our body even though we have finished treatment. Additionally, the powerful drugs that we were prescribed take their toll chemically on our minds while we try to wean off of them and can take us to some dark places.

Expecting that and recognizing that this is just part of the process is the first step, instead of believing that somehow you are worse off than another survivor with this being unique or unusual to you.


Finding Confidence

The next step is knowing, affirming, and believing that you absolutely can and will get through this. Connecting with a survivor, as I did, on the other side of treatment/recovery can be an instrumental positive step in this recovery as it was for me. 

Seeing that there is someone out there who is happy and living their lives is so valuable because you realize at one point they were exactly where you were and yet found a way to get out of the misery of recovery and back to an enjoyable life. Not just having “hope”, but adopting the firm “belief” that you will get back to a healthy, wonderful life—believing is way stronger than simply hoping.


Commit to Active Recovery

Your body is naturally going to fight to survive and recover even if you do not do anything because it wants to live. However, your recovery journey is enhanced when you commit to the process of active recovery by doing everything you can to help your body in that process with whatever it is you want to commit to—for me, it was religiously getting enough sleep at night, healthy diet, hydration, acupuncture, chiropractic care, working out, using a humidifier, vitamins, etc. 

Of course, those things are hard to do in the beginning when you do not feel like it and have difficulty physically doing them. Start slowly and make realistic goals for yourself. Slow time down to just one day at a time.


Set Realistic Expectations

I did not get to my goal of deadlifting 450 lbs. the day after treatment and I never made that goal for myself to start because that would have seemed impossible and I may not have even tried—in the beginning, I could barely do a front lunge with no weights without my leg shaking and lifting even the lightest of weights felt unbelievably challenging. 

I allowed myself to start slowly, and I set realistic goals to avoid feeling like a failure, but I also made sure that I was challenging myself with the intention of trying to move forward each day in recovery and getting back to that beautiful life ahead that was waiting on me. 

I also used a calendar after my last treatment to count the days forward in my “second chance” at life and my recovery process. Each day before I went to bed, I marked another day off on the calendar, appreciating that I had been given at least one more day of life, being thankful for the good I had experienced that day, congratulating myself for the effort I had put in to recover, and then praying that I would be given a chance to do it again tomorrow.


Being My Own Best Friend

In that process, I realized that my mind was the most powerful tool of all in my recovery. I have seen so many of our fellow brothers and sisters get caught on the ”dark” side of their recovery, feeling sorry for themselves, wallowing in suffering, and not being able to escape the terrible memories of their treatment and recovery. What happened to us is terrible, and of course we need to process those emotions the same way we deal with grief in other situations. But, we cannot get stuck there or otherwise we are not truly appreciating the gift we have been given to carry on with our second chance at life when other cancer patients were never given that chance.


Seeing the Glass Half Full

Whenever I would feel sad about my situation in that long, grueling recovery process, I would always try to focus on what I could do instead of what I could not. 

For example, when I still had no taste, I would remind myself that I could see. When I could not swallow, I would remind myself that I could walk, and so on. I have consistently tried to remind myself that there are always blessings around us even in the darkest of storms—the only question is whether we will be intentional in our effort to notice them or whether we will only focus on what we wish we could change and never see them. 

We are all different in our journeys, but by committing yourself to the belief that you will get better, allowing yourself to grieve and process what you went through while continuing to move forward positively, holding yourself accountable to do all that you can do to aid in your recovery process, challenging yourself with realistic goals in your recovery, and focusing every day on the thankfulness for the gift you have been given with this second chance of life, you will find that your recovery journey can instill in you a lifetime of appreciation that you otherwise would not have had but for this journey. 



HPVANDME: What advice do you have for survivors who don’t have a spouse/partner/caregiver? 

Mike West: Honestly, the same information as above.


HPVANDME: How has being a cancer survivor changed your life? 

Mike West: I will never say that I am thankful I had cancer. However, I am eternally grateful that God intervened in that challenging circumstance in my life to make me realize that life is short, life can drastically change or end for me and those that I love at any moment, I am blessed to wake up each morning, I should never take the abilities that I have physically for granted, and that life is more rewarding to live in service to others than to receive. 

Becoming a New Person

My cancer journey brought me to my knees and made me reevaluate how I was living every aspect of my life. I truly know that I am a new person now because of that experience in so many ways. I thought I was living and appreciating what I had before, but that journey taught me that I was not even close in those areas. 

Regardless of what cancer did to me physically, I now have a totally new mindset that I am thankful for and that I can honestly say I do not ever believe I would have found on my own but for that journey. In one word, I would describe it as appreciation. It has also allowed me the opportunity to help others and hopefully positively impact the lives of others by sharing my story, as so many people did for me during my journey.


HPVANDME: What do you tell other parents about the HPV vaccine? 

Mike West: The odds are basically a given, at 4 out of every 5 people, that your child will be exposed to the HPV virus in their lifetime. Although there is a very good chance your child’s body will rid the virus on its own, there are plenty of people out there like me every year who end up with an HPV related cancer. 

Advocating for the HPV Vaccine

The HPV vaccine is designed to protect your child from the most devastating forms of the HPV virus. The target age for the vaccine is between 9–10 years old because your child’s immune system is best equipped to increase the effectiveness of the vaccine (at that age) and because at this young age they hopefully have not been exposed to the virus yet. 

Without that vaccine, a parent is literally leaving it to chance, or the flip of a coin, that their child will either be able to fight off the virus on their own, or have the virus turn into a cancer that could potentially take their life or brutally change it forever. 

A Message to Fellow Parents

Every child deserves the best opportunity they can have to avoid an HPV related cancer and to not leave this to chance. It is not a decision that can wait until your child is older because they need to have the vaccine in their system before exposure to the HPV virus. 

Quite simply, I never want another child or family to go through what my family and I did, which is why I share my story to parents because they then have the chance to have their child vaccinated and to prevent this experience from ever being something they have to go through.


HPVANDME would like to thank Mike West for sharing his story,  continuing his patient advocacy work, and for helping thousands of HPV cancer patients and families navigate their cancer journeys. Mike is an inspiration!


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