Husband & Retired Professor, Georgia State University; Survivor of Stage 4 Mucoepidermoidal Tongue Cancer; Decatur, GA
In 2009, at the age of 57, Mike was diagnosed with Stage 4 mucoepidermoidal tongue cancer, a rare cancer with an expected 5-year survival rate of just over 50%–what he refers to as a coin-toss’s chance.
Mike was prescribed 36 doses of IMRT radiation and three infusions of chemotherapy. The first month of the treatments went well, until he bottomed out after the second chemo infusion and had to spend four nights in an extended care hospital ward after nearly dying from a cardiac event. If he had not followed his wife’s urging to go to ER right away, he would not have survived that first night. After recovering and completing the rest of his treatments, he would eventually receive a “No Evidence of Disease” (NED) report from his team of doctors that November. “Cancer gone, life gets back to normal, move on,” or so he thought.
But even before the NED report, there were signs that the “gifts that keep on giving”—radiation and chemo—had worked to cure his cancer but had left him with some serious and permanent side effects. So, what he thought was one journey in Cancer World (being treated as a patient) would turn into a second journey—that as an 11-year (and still counting!) physically disfigured survivor, struggling every day with eating and speech disabilities. He now receives about 95% of his calories and nutrition from a PEG tube which has been inserted into his stomach. Almost all foods more solid than yogurt are off-limits forever. The little he can eat by mouth must be carefully prepared and very cautiously chewed before swallowing. He has had to make several visits to the ER over the years to have stuck food extracted from his esophagus.
At the start of his treatments, Mike started a blog and continued to write about his experience for many years. It can be found at http://mikemetzlerbeatscancer.blogspot.com/. The idea behind the blog was for him and his wife Terry to keep family and friends informed without having to make multiple calls, texts, and emails when they had something to report. The blog actually turned out to be a running record of the many ups and downs they experienced over the years. In 2019 Mike began to write a memoir based on the blog. It’s called My Two Journeys in Cancer World: Team Mike Versus the Prairie Dogs. It is now available through Amazon in print and as an eBook and in Barnes and Noble and is published by Auctus Publishers. The picture on the book’s front cover is shown here. Team Mike, captained by Terry, was what they called the large number of family, friends, medical professionals, and even strangers who provided both of them with incredible support during Mike’s journeys. Prairie dogs is a humorous code name for cancer, given to him by one of his doctors. All of the book’s royalties will be donated to the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance.
The stories in the book describe more than the events that took place since 2009. It explains how Terry and Mike faced the news of the diagnosis, coped with the brutal treatments, rejoiced with the NED report, managed their disappointments, struggled with two major surgeries resulting from osteoradionecrosis, and have carried on in what Mike refers to as “abi-normal” of his cancer survivorship.
There are several common themes running through the book. One of the most important is Mike’s decision to stay positive, regardless of the many pieces of bad news he received over the years, and to find a way to even laugh out loud when things were at their worst. At one especially difficult time, he started a contest for his blog readers to send him the funniest greeting cards they could find. No traditional “Get Well” cards were allowed! When more struggles came later, he would pull out those cards and get a lift from reading them again.
To Mike, there is no one right way to have Stage 4 cancer. Everyone who hears that terrible news needs to face the music in their own way, by taking stock of their strongest personal characteristics and trusting in them. His way included being 100% transparent through the blog, following his doctors’ advice consistently, leaning on Terry early and often, asking for and getting support from Team Mike, keeping his sense of humor intact, and always staying optimistic — regardless of how painful and difficult it was at so many times on his two journeys. Mike also found great support and comfort from his virtual friends on Cancer Survivors Network where he found empathy, not sympathy, with his many struggles.
Mike’s cost of surviving cancer has been enormous and will continue to increase for the rest of his life. “With all the good things I have to live for, it has been well worth it. That’s the story I tell in the book and to every cancer patient and caregiver I meet. Don’t spend your time dwelling on what cancer has taken away from your life—spend your time enjoying the many good things you still have in your life,” added Mike.