Hector N.

Head and Neck Cancer - Stage 4

Hector Nunez

I met with my care team to evaluate my specific cancer and discuss treatment. Everyone was so warm, and made us feel safe and at peace. There is simply a wonderful atmosphere of togetherness at the hospital, and I knew it was where I wanted to go for treatment. Later, I learned that is one of the guiding principles of City of Hope—to treat patients as you would any member of your own family.

This testimonial includes a description of this patient’s actual medical results. Those results may not be typical or expected for the particular disease type described in this testimonial. You should not expect to experience these results. 

I was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and came to Chicago, Illinois, when I was only a month old. I followed in the footsteps of my father, who fought in World War II, and I joined the Marines in 1972. After being honorably discharged in 1976, I came back to Chicago and enrolled in a local barber college. This began my 40-year career as a barber, which culminated in owning my own barber shop.

Along the way, I followed my passion for music and played in several bands. I not only sang but also played guitar, accordion, bongos, saxophone and other instruments. I met and married my wife, Evelyn, in 2006, and together we have six children.

In the same month, September 2015, after saying goodbye to my father and selling my barber shop, I bit my tongue while eating a sandwich. Although it was painful, I didn’t think much about it, because I’ve bitten my tongue before. But I soon realized that something was clearly different this time. A few days later, I noticed my tongue wasn’t healing. In fact, there was something growing out of the left side. I showed my wife, and we were shocked; it was beyond strange.

I made an appointment with my primary care physician, who took one look at my mouth and immediately referred me to a local specialist. While at the specialist’s office, I completed a biopsy and returned a week later to get the results. The test came back positive for squamous cell cancer of the tongue. The doctor wanted to remove it right away, but I felt like I didn’t have all of the information I needed to make an informed decision. I needed time to discuss it with my wife and learn more about my cancer.

Finding a second opinion

My wife and I were anxious and scared, but determined to seek out the best care for me.  My wife went online, found Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA),* called and spoke with an Oncology Information Specialist. That single conversation not only established an immediate level of trust, but also comforted and reassured us that I would get the personalized care I deserved.  

Based on my phone conversation and the information we gathered online, we made the decision that I would go to CTCA Chicago for a second opinion. We were absolutely amazed the moment we stepped into the hospital; it was a feeling unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The doctors, clinicians and other employees treated us with so much respect and dignity.

I met with my care team to evaluate my specific cancer and discuss treatment. Everyone was so warm, and made us feel safe and at peace. There is simply a wonderful atmosphere of togetherness at the hospital, and I knew it was where I wanted to go for treatment. Later, I learned that is one of the guiding principles of CTCA, the Mother Standard® of care—to treat patients as you would any member of your own family.

Personalized treatment

Although I knew that CTCA was where I wanted to go for treatment, I was afraid of losing my tongue. Losing my tongue would take away one of my greatest passions: singing. With all my fears, concerns and hopes in mind, my care team presented me with several treatment options. The option I chose involved removing the tumor, followed by an immediate reconstruction of my tongue, then undergoing radiation therapy and chemotherapy. This was a well-coordinated effort between my medical oncologist, otolaryngologist and reconstructive microsurgeon. My otolaryngologist/head and neck surgeon extracted the tumor in a way that would allow for my reconstruction to take place. Once the tumor was removed, my plastic surgeon stepped in and took a patch of skin from my left forearm, including tiny blood vessels, and transferred it to my tongue. I woke up from the long surgery able to speak, but I had a long journey of healing ahead of me.

The recovery from surgery was difficult. I basically had to learn how to eat and speak again, but the post-care I received was tremendous. After allowing time to heal, a couple of weeks after surgery, I started radiation therapy and chemotherapy. I did experience some side effects, including loss of appetite and radiation burns. However, I worked closely with my supportive care team to address my side effects. As a retired barber, I found it interesting and very thankful that my hair never fell out.

The journey ahead

In October 2016, I learned from my medical oncologist that there was no evidence of disease remaining. In that moment, I felt so much joy and happiness. I was lucky to have found CTCA, where my care team worked tirelessly to help me through every step of my journey. I continue to return to CTCA every six months for follow-up visits. I truly believe that the whole-person approach to care is what helped me thrive through this process.

Today, I devote my life to staying healthy through good nutrition and exercise. As a pastor in my church for over seven years, I had to take some time off to battle my cancer. It was tough being away from my spiritual family, but soon after completing treatment, I was blessed to be able to return to my family. On Mother’s Day 2017, I sang in front of the congregation. I cried as I reached a milestone I never thought would be possible when I was first diagnosed with tongue cancer

To help support my family and my love of interacting with people, I drive every day for two popular ride-share companies. I respectfully share my cancer story with my passengers. I also share the message that you need to listen to your body and be aware of changes. If you have symptoms of head and neck cancer, don't ignore them. These symptoms are telling you to pay attention and address what needs to be healed.

My life perspective after cancer has changed. I try to be more aware of the present and be thankful for all the blessings in my life. I want to continue to touch the lives of others through my ministry, personal outreach and music. My family and friends were the source from which I drew strength, and I am thankful for every day that we have together.

* Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) is now City of Hope®, working together to expand patient access to personalized, comprehensive cancer care. Because this patient testimonial was written and published before CTCA® and City of Hope joined forces, mentions of legacy CTCA locations have not been updated in the interest of maintaining the patient’s original voice and story details.