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Bringing the Best Minds Together to Take On Head & Neck Cancer

“All I kept praying for was, ‘Please, God, lead us to the people who can cure him.’”

When Steven Furlong, 54, was diagnosed with cancer on his vocal cords, what his wife Kathryn prayed for – what she sought intensively – was the right medical team to help the couple through the arduous and terrifying journey ahead of them.

The Aliso Viejo couple said they found the team at Hoag’s Head & Neck Cancer Program. From the radiation oncologists and surgeons, to the nutritionist and speech and swallow therapist, and nurse navigator, the unique multidisciplinary team offered the Furlongs support and expertise. They also offered a healthy dose of honesty.

Timothy Kelley, M.D., Hoag Head & Neck Cancer program director and oncologic surgeon, warned Steven that his course of treatment would not be easy. And it wasn’t.

“But, honestly, when I look back I remember enjoying the time I got to spend with my wife,” said Steven, who underwent 7 weeks of radiation treatments, 9 weeks of chemo and has been cancer-free since for several months. “Believe it or not, we actually had fun.”

Head and neck cancers are extremely aggressive, often presenting in the stage II or IV level. Patients endure a tough treatment regimen because it affects the part of our body that allows us to communicate and feed ourselves. Over the years, these cancers, which were once associated with excessive alcohol and tobacco use, have been caused more frequently by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).

“With the HPV-association, we’re seeing a dramatic rise in head and neck cancers,” said Brian Kim, M.D., Hoag radiation oncologist. “In order to properly manage patients, a multidisciplinary approach to therapy is needed.”

Hoag’s unique, multi-faceted program includes state-of-the-art equipment and a comprehensive team approach. A panel of surgeons, radiologists, oncologists, pathologists, oral surgeons, dentists trained in oncology, nurse navigators, speech pathologists, dietitians and genetic counselors meet every week to decide the best course for patients during and post-treatment.

In Steven’s case, that group met the day of his biopsy, setting in motion a course of treatment that felt almost instantaneous.

“I have never seen such efficiency,” Kathryn said. “There was never a time when we couldn’t get a hold of someone. When we would need anything, they made it happen. It lessened the stress so much just knowing that we had a team that was so responsive.”

The efficiency and responsiveness is a result of an approach that puts patient care first, Dr. Kelley said.

“One of the unique things we offer, in addition to the tumor board conference, is right after the conference, our physicians meet as a group with the patient to present information firsthand,” Dr. Kelley said. “So they meet with the surgeon, oncologist and radiation oncologist as a group to give treatment recommendations. Right then and there, the patients are able to get answers to their biggest concerns.”

Steven’s biggest concern was retaining his ability to speak – and surf.

One of the treatment options for head and neck cancers is to surgically remove the cancer, which would leave a hole in Steven’s throat.

“I said, ‘I can’t surf with a big hole in my throat,’” Steven said.

Instead, the couple opted for radiation and chemotherapy, an aggressive form of treatment that included Intensity-Modulated Radiation Treatment (IMRT) using Tomotherapy, which allow oncologists to better target cancer cells while sparing normal tissue.

For patients whose treatment plan includes surgical options, Hoag is uniquely outfitted to provide state-of-the-art head and neck cancer surgery, including robotic surgery.

“We understand that the head and neck region is critical for everyday human interaction,” Dr. Kelley said. “Advancements in technology and minimally invasive procedures can often cure the cancer while preserving the patient's ability to maintain a high quality of life.”

This is particularly important because head neck cancers are typically diagnosed at more advanced stages than other cancers. They therefore require more aggressive treatment, often with all three modalities – surgery, oncology and radiology.

“By relying on expert and experienced specialists who work together, patients can trust their outcome will be the best one possible,” Dr. Kim said.

Another unique component of Hoag’s comprehensive care is the fact that Hoag offers a variety of support services that work with a patient’s medical team to minimize the effects of treatment and help patients recover their quality of life.

“We got so much help from so many people. There was the nutritionist, nurse navigator [Rhonda Hjelm, M.S.N., R.N., O.C.N.], the speech and language specialist, all of them working together for you,” Steven said. “When I talk to other people who have throat cancer, they say, ‘I don’t have that.’”

Two months ago, the couple was told that Steven is cancer-free. Kathryn remembers the day well: “I looked up and said, ‘We needed a miracle, and God led us to Hoag.’”