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Cancer Care: Home Away From Home

Steve Woods has saved lives in the ER, cracked up crowds as a stand-up comedian and smoked the competition as a BBQ pit master. Yet, his most rewarding adventure has been going head-to-head with cancer and winning.

An Unexpected Find

Steve was diagnosed with Stage 4A HPV-positive head and neck cancer in November 2016. He had dismissed possible early warning signs — difficulty swallowing and a hoarse voice — as side effects of a persistent respiratory problem. When his primary care physician, Sharon D. Scott, MD, with Meritas Health Park Plaza, felt a peanut-sized swollen neck lymph node during a routine physical exam, she ordered a CT scan as a precaution. The images showed one mass on the base of Steve’s tongue and another in his neck lymph nodes.

Biopsies showed a left tongue base squamous cell carcinoma, which is the most common head and neck cancer,” said Gaurav Prasad, MD, an ear, nose and throat physician with Meritas Health ENT. He specializes in head and neck cancers. “The cancer was positive for the human papillomavirus, which is present in nearly 80% of newly diagnosed cancers of the tonsil or tongue base.”

“I thought I was going to die,” Steve recalled. “I had a million and one things that I felt I needed to get situated before my life ended. But, the physicians at North Kansas City Hospital told me I’d live to be an old man. They took the weight off my shoulders.”

No Second Thoughts

Steve, who retired from NKCH as an ER nurse, didn’t think twice about where he would go for care. “I’ve seen a lot of miracles performed at NKCH,” he said. “I wasn’t going to travel to another facility because I knew first-hand the compassion and standard of care they give patients. I felt NKCH was home for me, and it was where I wanted my treatment.”

NKCH’s accredited cancer care program provides full-scale services on its campus. From imaging and biopsies to chemotherapy, radiation and rehabilitation, everything Steve needed was less than 10 miles from his home. “All my appointments were made for me, from my CT and PET scans to my treatment, dietary counseling, speech therapy and fatigue management. The hospital took care of everything, down to my feeding tube.”

A Tough Seven Weeks

When Steve learned surgery wasn’t an option, he discussed other treatment options, including a possible clinical trial, with his oncologist Venkatadri C. Beeki, MD, who practices on NKCH’s campus through the hospital’s partnership with The University of Kansas Cancer Center. It was decided three rounds of cisplatin chemotherapy and 35 radiation treatments would give Steve the best possible outcome. “I was in treatment five days a week for seven weeks,” Steve said. Because the cisplatin affected Steve’s kidney function, he completed two of the three treatments and 33 rounds radiation.

“We try to offer surgery if possible,” Dr. Prasad explained. “In Mr. Woods’ case, the cancer was in an area that is difficult to access surgically. Furthermore, we felt surgery would leave him with significant speech and swallowing issues. We decided chemotherapy with radiation was the best treatment option.”

As a former ER nurse, Steve was used caring for others. Now, the tables had turned. “I gained my strength through my family, my friends and my wife,” he said. “In the middle of treatment, I thought, ‘I can’t do it.’ They just kept pushing me and promised I’d make it through.

"I lost my lifelong best friend, Michael Campbell, to head and neck cancer in 2012. Throughout my treatment Mike’s parents, Carl and Shirley Campbell, were truly my inspiration. They are like parents to me. I had a lot of conversations with Mike, too, and felt like he was listening to me and holding my hand while I was going through this.”

Laughing Matters

Steve also found inspiration through his passion for comedy. “I loved watching The Dick Van Dyke Show as a child,” he said. “From an early age, I knew I wanted to make people laugh when I grew up.” In his younger years, he dabbled in comedy writing and performed a stand-up routine on open mike nights around town. Later, he used comedy in his nursing practice. “A lot of times, you can’t do anything for the physical self, but there’s always something you can do for the emotional self.”

When he became sick, Steve relied on humor to cheer up himself and others while they went through treatment together in NKCH’s infusion clinic. “Everyone knew when I was coming for treatment, and we looked forward to seeing one another. I used humor throughout most of my treatment, even when I was feeling my worst.”

Up in Smoke

Cancer forced Steve to put another hobby, barbecuing, on the backburner. It’s an interest he developed at an early age, even competing a few times at the American Royal Barbecue. He perfected his art over the years and thought about opening a barbecue business after he retired.

“Barbecuing is relaxing to me. It’s a hobby, and rewarding to watch people enjoy what I prepare for them.” As soon as he started feeling better, Steve fired up his smoker. However, treatment had destroyed his taste buds, and he couldn’t stand the taste of his own cooking. “It really bothered me after all these years of cooking,” he said. “Fortunately, my taste buds came back.”

Mentor to Millions

It takes a certain kind of person to find the silver lining in a life-changing situation. Steve finished his final treatment in March. Recent scans show no signs of cancer. He’s determined to turn his experience into something positive. He created Journeys Against Cancer: No One Fights Alone, a 900-member Facebook cancer support group that connects people from all over the world who have either finished treatment or are just starting the long journey.

“I want people to know that cancer is not an automatic death sentence,” Steve said. “Having cancer and going through treatment is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but every survivor is a mentor to millions. I want to pay this forward.”

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Steve Woods