Melvin J. LeBlanc
Husband, Father, Global HSSE Learning Advisor at Shell Oil Company & Head and Neck Cancer Survivor; Houston, TX
During the first two weeks of May 2018, I visited two clinics undergoing a total of 5 needle biopsies to a lump on the right side of my neck with no conclusive results, but cancerous possibilities. I went to MD Anderson Cancer Center located in Houston Texas, and with an additional 2 needle biopsies, it was determined on May 15, 2018 that I had Metastatic Squamous Cell Carcinoma to the right side of my neck. The primary source of the cancer was identified to be at the base of my tongue about 2 millimeters in size, which was nearly imperceptible on the CT results. The cause of the cancer was based on an HPV positive presumption.
Between the time of diagnosis and treatment, I remained patient and continued to seek spiritual guidance. I acknowledged to myself, family and friends that God knew this to be in my life’s decree, that this happened to me for a reason and at the time prescribed (58 years old). I relied on God to give me the resolve to accept this cancer decree and that He would not give me a burden or situation beyond my capacity to handle and to get through it. A religious belief that I frequently said to get me through this situation goes like this: “How wonderful is the affair of the believers. God does not decree anything for him, but it is good for him. If good things happen to him, he gives thanks, and that is good for him; and if difficulties happen to him, he bares it with patience, and it turns out good for him”. Burgundy & Ivory wristbands representing the colors of Head & Neck cancer stating “No One Fights Alone” were purchased by my family as a reminder that God and my family are with me in this difficult time.
On June 13, 2018, I started my radiation and chemo treatment. My wife was a big help, as she would drive me daily to and from the treatment center and reminded me about eating and skin care. As the radiation treatment progressed my skin became discolored, looking like a serious case of sunburn, and daily application of skin care was important to prevent severe skin damage. Another side effect of radiation to the neck/throat area were the difficulties of eating and swallowing food, which gradually took its toll on me. Three weeks into my treatment, on July 1, 2018, I started vomiting a dark red almost purple substance at home. I initially thought it to be blueberries that I had eaten moments earlier, but after looking closer, I determined it was blood. My wife rushed me to MD Anderson emergency room and was later diagnosed with Severe Protein Calorie Malnutrition, resulting in 14 lbs. of weight loss. The remedy for this diagnosis was the surgical insertion of a feeding tube into my stomach. I spent the 4th of July holiday recovering from a successful surgery.
After leaving the hospital, I continued the radiation, chemo and feeding tube treatment. For about a week or two before the end of the radiation treatment, I would go through a whole box of tissues in one day attempting to keep my mouth clear of excessive saliva. I recall having to cancel business meetings for one week because the saliva prevented me from speaking properly. My radiation and chemo treatment ended on July 25, 2018 as I ‘rung the bell’ at the Bay Area MD Anderson facility in Houston Texas.
The feeding tube treatment continued for an additional 6 weeks. Removal of the tube was based on my ability to consume about 1500 to 2000 calories per day without using the tube for nutrition. As the weeks passed, healing of the throat from the radiation treatment progressed. I can remember the day I tried chicken noodle soup. I cried… tears of joy rolled down my face… as I was able to swallow, and more amazingly, I was able [once again] to taste food after having no taste at all or food tasting like metal due to the chemo treatment. My ability to return to regular food and wean myself off the feeding tube ended on September 6, 2018. As I laid down on the examination table, the doctor distracted me for 1 second and literally ‘yanked’ the feeding tube out of my stomach… no surgery… no pain… no blood. Wow, how amazing the design of the human body.
My initial recovery milestone post-all-treatment (September 6, 2018) was to participate in the USA Basketball Youth Camp as one of the USA Basketball Youth Development Skills Coaches. I was able to successfully get my weight, strength and nutrition up to participate in the two-day camp event without any difficulty on September 28, 2018. Another milestone that aided my mental recovery was my daughter, who is a 7th Grade Math Teacher, needing someone to speak at her school’s career day. I tried to get other professionals (Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, Business Owners) to do it for her, but to no avail. So, not to let her down, I went shopping. I purchased a shirt and slacks (two significant pieces of clothing that symbolizes my cancer journey) and delivered the career day presentation on October 5, 2018. That event was a mental [needed] step change. It helped me to prepare myself to return to my professional working environment at Shell. I had to purchase a whole new wardrobe as my waist size went from size 33 to 30, shirts from large to medium and jacket size from 40 to 38.
My first quarterly follow-up visit post conclusion of all treatment and examinations occurred on January 1, 2019. The results of that visit compared to the CT exam held on September 19, 2018 showed no evidence of reoccurrence with the primary cancer source. The right neck mass had decreased from 12 millimeters down to 6 millimeters with no new progression identified. Subsequent quarterly visits throughout 2019 and the most recent February 28, 2020 visit, showed no presence of the primary source and no evidence of a neck mass. My successful medical progress has enabled follow-up visits to be scheduled every 6 months, rather than quarterly.
Following my cancer treatment, I took up a sport called Pickleball after visiting a local YMCA. This activity has been an excellent addition to my health and helped me regain my weight, muscle strength and athletic abilities, in addition to meeting a new group of friendly people. Since July 2019, I have successfully competed in several pickleball tournaments throughout the state of Texas. The medals are hung on the feeding tube stand that I converted into a lamp, symbolizing brighter days ahead. On March 12, 2020, I competed in the USA Pickleball Association Mid-South Regional Tournament and won the gold medal as the Regional Champion. I will represent the states of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas at the USA Pickleball National Championships games in Palm Spring, California in November 2020, if the COVID-19 pandemic does not prevent it. I have already landed a spot in the 2021 States Games of America as the men’s singles champion, which will be held in Des Moines, Iowa. I’m hoping to qualify this year for the USA 2021 Senior Olympics that will be held on November 5 – 18, 2021 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
I thank God for this decree and experience, it has humbled me.
“How wonderful is the affair of the believers.”