July 21, 2023

Thankful for every day after HPV-related cancer diagnosis

Michael West shares his incredible journey from diagnosis to treatment to a thriving recovery from head and neck cancer related to human papillomavirus.

Kaiser Permanente member Michael West saw an unexpected cancer diagnosis as an opportunity to improve himself and motivate others.

Michael West’s whole life changed when he was simply shaving one morning and felt a tiny knot in the left side of his throat near the lymph node area.

West, a Kaiser Permanente member in San Diego, California, sought medical attention right away. It was a decision that saved his life.

“The ironic thing is that I really had no other symptoms,” said West. “I felt fine.”

A shocking diagnosis

West was referred to Gabriel Calzada, MD, a head and neck surgeon at the Kaiser Permanente Garfield Specialty Center in San Diego. Dr. Calzada performed a biopsy on the neck mass. To West’s surprise, the biopsy results came back positive for cancer.

West was diagnosed with stage 4 human papillomavirus-related head and neck cancer.

“I still haven’t found the appropriate words to describe what you feel like when you hear the 3 dreaded words, ‘You have cancer,’” said West. “Time stops — everything stops — and honestly the first thing you think is, ‘Am I going to die?’”

Rising to the challenge

HPV is a common virus that is spread by intimate skin-to-skin or sexual contact. “This virus infects a vast majority of people as adults, and we haven’t figured out why but a certain minority of people develop cancers,” explained Dr. Calzada. It usually takes years, even decades, after being infected with HPV for cancer to develop.

About 70% of cancers that develop in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils, are caused by HPV. “Often, the exact location can’t be found, and in those instances, you have to treat the entire head and neck region with radiation supplemented by chemotherapy,” said Dr. Calzada.

Altogether, West endured 35 high-intensity radiation treatments to his head and neck.

He acknowledged his treatment journey was incredibly difficult. “I completely lost my taste. I also developed dry mouth because many of my salivary glands were obliterated by the radiation during that treatment,” West recalled. “You develop a lot of pain, fatigue, and even though you’re on the heaviest of the pain medications to try and get you through it, it still hurts.”

But West was determined and made a remarkable recovery.

I’m stronger in so many ways — mentally, physically, and spiritually — than I ever was. To be able to have a second chance to live your life in a better way, as a better person, is a gift that I’m thankful for every single day.

‘His due diligence paid off’

“It’s an example of facing your fears and overcoming,” said Dr. Calzada. “Mr. West rallied and focused on treatment, going to each of his appointments, and following the treatment recommendations, and his due diligence paid off.”

West regained his sense of taste. He was off the pain medications within one month of finishing treatment and has never felt any pain since.

“I’m stronger in so many ways — mentally, physically, and spiritually — than I ever was,” said West. “To be able to have a second chance to live your life in a better way, as a better person, is a gift that I’m thankful for every single day.”

Early protection works best

The incidence of HPV-related throat cancer is increasing each year, particularly among men. Vaccination can prevent over 90% of cancers caused by HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The HPV vaccine is recommended for adolescents at 11 or 12 years of age to ensure they’re protected before being exposed to the virus.

Everyone up to age 26 should get the HPV vaccine if they were not fully vaccinated already. Adults age 27 to 45 can talk to their doctor about getting the vaccine. HPV vaccination of adults provides less benefit, because more people in this age range have already been exposed to HPV.

“Never, ever, ever, give up,” encourages West. “Keep fighting and do everything you can to get through it because there’s a beautiful life waiting for you on the other side of that challenge.”

Learn more about cancer care at Kaiser Permanente.