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. 

Take a look at this photo. Do you see an unattainable end of the rainbow? Or, do you see a shining, bright sun that rises every day? A cancer patient’s perspective post-treatment can be influential, arguably as much as his or her physical recovery. No two cancer survivors walk the same journey.How do you begin living as a cancer survivor?

What is HPV Throat Cancer?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) throat cancer, also known as oropharyngeal cancer, became a prevalent health concern in recent years. After treatment, survivors of HPV throat cancer face the task of rebuilding their lives. 

Understanding HPV Throat Cancer

HPV throat cancer primarily affects the oropharynx, which includes the base of the tongue, tonsils, and back of the throat. While some throat cancers may be caused by smoking and alcohol habits, incidents of HPV-related throat cancer remain on the rise—especially among younger individuals. In the US, HPV is the most common STI. The CDC says that almost all sexually active men and women will get HPV at some point in their lives. Certain strains of HPV, typically transmitted through intimate contact, including oral sex, can cause cancer. 

Challenges Faced by Survivors

Recovering from HPV throat cancer involves overcoming physical, emotional, and social challenges. Treatment methods such as surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy can leave survivors with lingering side effects. These include difficulty swallowing, speech impairment, loss of taste, and fatigue. Additionally, survivors may struggle with anxiety, depression, body image issues, and fear of recurrence. These conditions can hinder their hope of a fulfilling life after cancer.

Enhancing Recovery for HPV Throat Cancer Survivors

  1. Seek specialized rehabilitation: Engaging in a comprehensive rehabilitation program becomes essential for survivors to regain optimal functioning. Speech and swallowing therapy can help improve communication skills and address swallowing difficulties. Physical therapy may be recommended to manage muscle weakness or joint stiffness caused by treatment.
  2. Embrace a healthy lifestyle: Adopting a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can aid in recovery and boost the immune system. Regular exercise, under the guidance of healthcare professionals, can promote physical strength, reduce fatigue, and enhance overall well-being.
  3. Prioritize mental health: Survivors may prioritize their mental well-being by seeking counseling or joining support groups. Sharing experiences with fellow survivors also offers valuable emotional support. Therapeutic techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation exercises can also help alleviate anxiety and depression.
  4. Educate and advocate: Empowering survivors with knowledge about HPV throat cancer, its treatment, and potential complications can foster a sense of control. Encouraging survivors to actively participate in their recovery process and advocate for their needs can lead to more personalized and effective care. Survivors also have opportunities to become patient advocates themselves. The experience may provide a source of healing. 
  5. Build a support network: Establishing a strong support network comprising family, friends, healthcare professionals, and support groups is crucial for survivors. Having a network that understands their unique challenges and provides emotional support can significantly improve recovery outcomes.
  6. Regular follow-up care: Without saying, survivors must receive follow-up medical care. Regular visits with healthcare providers can help detect any potential recurrence or address persistent side effects.

What If I Am Alone?

In a Facebook group for HPV+ throat cancer survivors, one survivor recently wrote, “Lost 62 lbs., most of my hair and aged 20 years overnight. I really don’t know who this person is. I’m struggling with being alone and going through everything alone.” 

After cancer treatment, not everyone comes home to a spouse, partner, or caregiver who can provide both physical and psychological support. Groups such as Imerman Angels provide one-on-one support for cancer patients survivors at no cost. The organization matches survivors according to age, gender, cancer type and experience. The protocol helps the survivor to connect with someone who truly understands one’s situation to provide a “supportive and empathetic environment.”

Looking Forward

Surviving HPV throat cancer may be described as a remarkable achievement. However, the journey towards recovery for survivors involves addressing physical, emotional, and social challenges. By embracing specialized rehabilitation, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, prioritizing mental health, educating themselves, building a support network, and accessing regular follow-up care, survivors can enhance their recovery process and embrace a fulfilling life beyond cancer. 

Remember, no one is not alone in this journey, and with the right support, it is possible to triumph over HPV throat cancer—and begin living a full life as a cancer survivor.

© Copyright 2023, HPVANDME, INC.