(Editor’s note: Tom Kessler has worked as a sports page designer, copy editor and sports writer for the Casa Grande Dispatch and PinalCentral.com since June of 2011.)
SAN TAN VALLEY, Arizona — I looked like I got hit squarely in the jaw by a Randy Johnson fastball, and the baseball stuck in my face.
That was my reaction the first time I saw my reflection in the mirror after undergoing surgery to remove oral cancer.
The 13-and-a-half hour surgery, which took place on Aug. 28, 2017, at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, Arizona, involved doctors cutting off a portion of my face and adjoining left lower lip and then closing the wound by attaching skin from my left thigh. The objectives of the surgery were to remove Stage 4 cancer from the inside of my mouth and then to repair the affected area so I could recover and live a normal life.
“It’s going to be tough,” Dr. Chafeek Tomeh, head and neck surgical oncologist for Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, told me in early August of 2017 in explaining the surgery and subsequent recuperation process that would also involve radiation and chemotherapy treatments. “But we’ll get you through it.”
What follows is a chronological account of how the doctors, nurses, therapists and radiation technicians at Banner Gateway and the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center helped me get through the most daunting challenge of my life, and how my wonderful wife Catharine was there to support me every step of the way.
July 26, 2017
The fourth Wednesday of July began as one of those days that you look forward to for months. My wife Catharine and I were packing our suitcases to embark upon our annual trip north to Flagstaff, Arizona, where we would escape the midsummer heat of the Phoenix-area desert and enjoy the cool pines and relaxed atmosphere of our favorite mountain town.
Before we left, I mentioned to wife that my mouth had been hurting while I was brushing my teeth. The small lesion inside my mouth, which a dentist had told me was nothing to worry about when he looked at it in November 2016, had become painful for the first time. The dentist had told me that if I wanted to have the lesion removed, I could see a specialist, but it really wasn’t necessary because it was nothing to worry about.
On the fourth Wednesday of July, when my mouth began hurting, I told my wife that I should make an appointment to see the specialist when we got back from Flagstaff. Catharine said we needed to see a doctor immediately.
We drove to the urgent care facility in our San Tan Valley neighborhood. Catharine stayed in the waiting room as I went back to the examining area. The doctor pulled back my lip and looked inside my mouth. After he began to speak, I knew that I needed to have my wife in the room with me.
“I am very concerned about this,” the doctor said.
Catharine was brought back to the examining area, and the doctor proceeded to tell both of us what he had begun to tell me.
“I don’t know what oral cancer looks like,” the doctor said. “But this has me extremely concerned.”
The doctor left the room to call a specialist and make an appointment for me. My head was spinning as my wife and I tried to hold back tears as we attempted to digest the stunning turn of events that the morning had taken.
A few long minutes later, the doctor returned and said he had made an appointment for me to see a specialist on August 1, the day after we would be returning home from Flagstaff.
August 1, 2017
We enjoyed our trip to Northern Arizona, which — in addition to the usual hiking, dining and sightseeing — was highlighted by a Jeep tour of the Grand Canyon.
Back in the desert, on the first Tuesday of August, I went to see Dr. Peter Spanganberg at Sonoma Oral and Facial Surgery in Gilbert. He looked at my mouth and said I needed to have a biopsy immediately.
August 7, 2017
Six days later, I went back to Dr. Spanganberg’s office to learn the results of the biopsy.
The diagnosis, according to the dermatopathology report, was “invasive moderately-differentiated squamous cell carcinoma, present at deep and peripheral margins.”
The good news, Dr. Spanganberg said, was that the cancer was moderate and not severe. He said I would be put under the care of a team of doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and he said those doctors would formulate a plan for treatment, with the goal of allowing me to live a normal life. He said that I had an appointment to meet with a doctor at MD Anderson on August 11.
Catharine and I exited Dr. Spanganberg’s office and walked out to the parking lot. We hugged each other and told each other that somehow we would find a way to get through this.
After arriving back home, I sent a text message to my younger brother Mike, who lives in Chicago.
“I am dealing with a medical issue,” I wrote. “I underwent a test last week and received the results today. I need to tell Mom and you and Chuck (our oldest brother) about this. I am off work today if you are able to talk. I am so scared.”
My brother Mike, who had undergone surgery for testicular cancer a few years earlier, called immediately and offered his empathy and support. We talked about how he had done extensive research about the treatment of his cancer prior to undergoing his surgery, and he said I could do that, too. I said that I would not be doing that at all, because I did not want to read any article that might say that I had no chance. I was instead going to focus solely on what my doctors said I needed to do, and that is what I have done throughout the entire process of treatment and recovery.
August 11, 2017
Catharine and I met with Dr. Tomeh for the first time on the second Friday of August at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and he had all the details formulated for my treatment plan. I would undergo a 12-hour surgery on August 28, he said, and I would be hospitalized for a week. My subsequent recovery at home would take months, and I would also undergo radiation and chemotherapy treatments to prevent the cancer from returning.
He talked about an 80 percent survival rate, and then, because lymph nodes were involved, he amended that to 60 or 70 percent.
He told me that I would “look different and talk different” after the surgery, but he said that I’m young (52 years old at the time) and in good physical condition so I would be able to get through it.
I put my full trust in Dr. Chafeek Tomeh. He was the person who could save my life. Whatever he said I needed to do, that is what I was going to do.
“Can you fix this?” I asked Dr. Tomeh.
He said that he could, and that is what I focused upon.
August 25, 2017
The two weeks prior to my surgery were a whirlwind of activity as I underwent medical tests and talked with the doctors who would be helping me.
Dr. Neil Sachanandani, a specialist in plastic and reconstructive surgery, told me about how he would take skin from my left upper leg and attach it to the left side of my face after Dr. Tomeh removed the cancer.
Nurses explained the instructions of what I needed to do to prepare for the August 28 surgery.
I went to several appointments at MD Anderson on August 25, and that day, it all began to get overwhelming.
I was in an examining room waiting to meet for the first time with Dr. Gary Walker, the radiation oncologist who I would be working with throughout October and November.
While I was waiting, Dr. Sachanandani came in and said that he might have to do more reconstructive work on my face than we had previously discussed. He said he might have to remove a bone from my lower right leg and attach it, along with a steel plate, into the right side of my mouth. Fortunately, it turned out that he did not have to do that, but, at the time, it was disconcerting to hear him talk about it.
A minute or two later, Dr. Walker came in, and he told me about the radiation treatment that I would be undergoing beginning in October. He showed me a mask, which looked like a helmet, that I would have to wear tightly over my face during the radiation treatments. He also mentioned a little bit about the chemotherapy treatments that I would be undergoing.
It was getting to be too much for me to process at one time. Sensing my increasing anxiety, Dr. Walker left the examining room and made a phone call.
He called in Dr. Rena Szabo, a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping cancer patients deal with the challenges of treatment and recovery.
Just a few minutes after Dr. Walker exited the examining room, Dr. Szabo knocked on the door and came in.
“Tell me what you’ve been through today,” she said to me.
Immediately, I knew that Dr. Rena Szabo was someone who I could trust, who was there to help me. She has been helping me ever since. During our most recent visit a few months ago, she suggested that I write a newspaper article telling about the process of my recovery.
“You’re a writer,” she said. “You need to write your story.”
August 28, 2017
Catharine and I arrived at the Banner Gateway Medical Center just before 5:30 a.m., as scheduled, for the 8 a.m. surgery. We spent time in one waiting room, and then another, before being taken into the surgery preparation area.
I am terrified of needles, so the first thing I had to get through was the insertion of the IV into my arm.
Then the anxious moments commenced as I pondered the impending surgery.
My wife and I hugged each other, and the nurses began to wheel me toward the operating room.
The surgery turned out to be 13 and a half hours. I was still asleep when the doctors allowed Catharine, my brother Mike and my friend Vinton Bair (who was the best man at my and Catharine’s wedding in 1995) to see me late that night. Several weeks later, when I asked Catharine what I looked like that night, she said my face was so scarred and puffy that I looked like I had been in a horror movie.
August 29, 2017
I woke up after the surgery during the early-morning hours of the fifth Tuesday of August. When I awoke, the sun hadn’t yet risen, no one else was in the room, and I knew exactly where I was — I was lying on my back in a room in the intensive care unit, with a feeding tube in my nose, a breathing tube in my mouth and an IV in my left arm.
Soon after, my wife and brother Mike arrived to see me. Catharine leaned in to hug me, and I was so happy to see her. I did not want to know what I looked like, so I didn’t ask. The most important thing was that I was awake — and alive. When you undergo 13 and a half hours of surgery, you don’t know for sure that you are going to wake up. I woke up, and now I was going to take things one hour, one day, one week at a time. I was focused on doing what the doctors, nurses and therapists said I had to do.
Sometime around noon, a therapist came in and helped me sit up for the first time after the surgery. She then helped me move out of the bed and into a chair. That first day, she had me just sit in the chair for a while. As the week went on, she would bring in a walker and we would walk around the periphery of the hospital unit. It was almost like learning how to walk again. The first time I took a step without holding onto the walker, I lost my balance and was about to fall straight to the floor when the therapist caught me. After that, I was able to walk longer and faster on every trip we took.
My friend Ed Petruska, the retired sports editor and current contributing writer for the Casa Grande Dispatch, came in to visit during that first day after my surgery. He sent an email that evening to my coworkers at the newspaper. When I returned to work three months later and went through my emails, I saw that I had been sent a copy of that email.
“Tom is at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert,” Ed wrote.
“His room # is 1208 (main building, 2nd floor in the ICU)
“Seems to be doing OK, all things considered. Sat in a chair for the hour or so I was there.”
August 31, 2017
Ever since I was 7 years old — growing up in Ohio in the 1970s — my life has revolved around sports. The Ohio State Buckeyes, Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Cavaliers are my teams. Thanks to the technological advances of SiriusXM satellite radio, DirecTV and the internet, I am still able to follow their games on a daily basis even after relocating to Arizona in 2007.
On the final day of August 2017, the Ohio State Buckeyes began their football season with a Thursday night game against the Indiana Hoosiers. I was able to watch the game, a 49-21 Ohio State victory, from my hospital room with my brother Mike. It was great to do something “normal,” something that I would have been doing if I were not in the hospital.
Three nights later, on September 3, the doctors and nurses allowed me to have two hours, without interruption, so I could participate with friends in an online NFL fantasy football draft through the Yahoo sports app on my cellphone. I have competed in this league, with this same group of friends, since 2003, so it was very enjoyable and meaningful for me to be able to find a way to participate, despite being in a hospital bed.
September 1, 2017
My home is in Arizona, but my family and friends are in Ohio. On the first day of September, from my hospital bed, I posted a message on Facebook to tell my friends a little bit about what I was going through.
“To all of my friends,” I wrote.
“Please keep me in your thoughts as I continue to recover from oral cancer surgery which I underwent on Monday here at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, Arizona. I was in surgery for 13 and a half hours, and I will be in the hospital through the weekend probably until Tuesday. I then will be recovering at home for several weeks or months.
“This entire situation has all happened within the last five weeks. Prior to late July, I did not know anything was wrong.
“This is the most difficult challenge I have ever faced in my life, but I must stay determined and strong and find a way to defeat this and get past this.
“Please keep me in your thoughts, and thank you all for your friendship,
The outpouring of support I received was gratifying and uplifting. Friends from elementary school, high school, college and previous jobs sent me messages of encouragement, support and prayer that I will never forget.
September 2, 2017
At the end of the week, I looked at my face for the first time after the surgery.
My doctors and nurses referred to the skin graft on my face and the inside of my mouth as “the flap.” I called it “the baseball.”
“The baseball” was quite large at the time, and my face was still puffy. Dr. Tomeh and Dr. Sachanandani said the skin graft would get smaller and less noticeable over time. They were correct when they said it would shrink considerably in October and November when I underwent radiation treatments.
September 6, 2017
I was discharged from the hospital on the first Wednesday of September. My wife and I were so happy that I was coming home.
I was still using the walker for the first few days I was home, but I was quickly able to move around without it.
One of the main challenges of the first few days I was home was figuring out how to efficiently use my feeding tube.
September 7, 2017
The apparatus is called a “gravity feeding tube.” To use it, formula and water are poured into a feed bag, which is attached to a tube, which is inserted into the patient’s nose so it can be pushed down past the throat.
The food drips into the patient’s nose one drop at a time, and the key is finding a place to put the feed bag that will allow it to work most effectively. I brought a step ladder in from the garage and noticed that it has a small hook on the back of the top rung.
Perfect. I would clip the feed bag onto the hook of the ladder, sit in a chair and allow the formula and water to drip into my nose from the feed bag.
On the first Thursday night of September, I went through the feeding-tube process while sitting in a chair in my kitchen and watching the opening game of the 2017 NFL season between the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.
Five months later, I watched the Super Bowl between the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles on a TV that I had brought outside to my backyard patio. No feeding tube. No walker. I was back to 100 percent. While watching that Super Bowl on the first Sunday of February in 2018, I thought about the progress I had made from the opening game of that NFL season to the final game. I was, and still am, so grateful.
September 13, 2017
One of the last — and, to me, one of the most important — things I asked my surgeon before being discharged from the hospital was, “How soon can I go back to the gym?”
Dr. Tomeh gave me approval to restart my workouts on September 13, so I made the trip that night to my home gym, Planet Fitness in Apache Junction.
I was very limited in which exercises I was allowed to do that night — I had to be extremely careful not to put too much strain on my neck — but I was so happy to be back in the weight room.
I first began lifting weights in earnest in my friend Dave Waddell’s basement when we were seniors in high school during the 1982-83 school year, and I have been doing it ever since. Working out is one of my favorite things to do in life, and on the second Wednesday of September 2017, I was so happy to be able to get back to doing it.
“Sixteen days after my surgery and seven days after returning home from the hospital, I am glad to be back at the gym tonight,” I wrote that evening on Facebook.
“I have a long way to go in my recovery. I will be starting radiation treatment in a few weeks. But I am happy to report that my surgeon told me yesterday that he removed all of the cancer.
“Getting through the surgery and the nine days in the hospital was difficult. With the support of my wonderful wife Catharine Lammers Kessler along with my brother Michael Beach and longtime friend Vinton Bair who made the trip to Arizona for the surgery, I was able to get through it.
“Thank you to everyone for your support, thoughts and prayers.”
One of the first replies I received from that Facebook post was from my wife, who wrote: “Going to the gym is a huge accomplishment, but Tom didn’t say that he is still being tube fed. He has a long tube coming out of his nose that is safety pinned to his shirt. You rock.”
Catharine punctuated her post with a smiley-face emoji.
I replied, “Yes, it looks like an elephant’s trunk!”
I received several other uplifting and much-appreciated messages from friends that night, including this from my brother Mike.
“Awesome news!!! You should be very proud of what you have accomplished It is tremendous and inspiring.”
And this from Greg Tietz, who has been one of my closest friends since we were communication majors, working at the college radio station, at the University of Akron in the 1980s.
“Tom, I’ve read your update about twenty times and I can’t get over the fact that you’re at the gym. I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but that’s unreal. Wishing you all the best as you travel the road to recovery! Now I’m going to read your update a few more times.”
October 3, 2017
On the first Tuesday of October, I underwent the first of six scheduled weekly chemotherapy treatments (it turned out that I only had to do five) and then was administered the first of 30 radiation treatments.
As I have stated previously, I am terrified of needles, so the weekly process of having a nurse attempt to locate a vein to insert the IV into my left arm for the chemotherapy was difficult. Once the IV was successfully in place, I would sit in a chair for three to four hours while the chemotherapy drugs dripped into my arm.
That first day, while sitting in the chemotherapy chair while listening to satellite radio on headphones through my cellphone, I felt inspired to write a tribute to one of my musical heroes, Tom Petty, who had died the day before.
“While undergoing my first of six chemotherapy treatments today (and getting ready for my first of 29 or 30 radiation treatments later this afternoon) at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Arizona, I am listening to Tom Petty Radio on SiriusXM,” I wrote on Facebook. “The show that they are airing is a heartfelt and therapeutic tribute to the man and his music. When I first heard the news 24 hours ago of Tom’s heart attack, my reaction was, ‘I am speechless.’ Today, I think the words I can offer are that, for people of our generation, who were born in the 1960s and into the 1970s, Tom was one of us. His music has been a constant companion and an ongoing soundtrack for our lives. To say he will be missed is a monumental understatement. But we will always have the memories and we will always have the music, which is a legacy that will last for as long as people are listening to rock and roll.”
October 9, 2017
There were side effects to the chemotherapy and radiation treatments. One of the side effects of radiation was a progressive loss of appetite throughout the six weeks of treatment.
By early October, I no longer had the feeding tube in my nose and was able to consume a liquid diet through my mouth. My doctors knew, however, that by the end of October I would need assistance in eating and drinking, because the radiation would sap my appetite and would affect my sense of taste to the point where any food or liquid I put in my mouth would taste awful.
In early October, I had a hole drilled into my stomach which would accommodate an apparatus called a gastrostomy feeding tube, which I would need to use at the end of October and into November.
Within a few hours of having the hole drilled into my stomach, I had to go in for my daily radiation treatment. While walking down a narrow hallway to the radiation lab, I was knocked to the floor by an intense pain in my stomach. It felt like I had been punched in the stomach by Wladimir Klitschko, only 10 times worse.
I fell to my knees, and several radiation technicians came running to help. I struggled to catch my breath, and they told me to take as much time as I needed and they would help me up.
“I have to get to my radiation treatment,” I said while trying to push myself up off the floor.
Skipping that day’s treatment was not an option, because if I did, it would add another day to my six-week treatment schedule.
So, with the help of the radiation technicians, I made my way into the lab for that day’s treatment.
I put on the helmet, which had a hole cut out of it where the radiation needed to go. The purpose of the helmet was to protect the rest of my face, head and neck from the radiation.
I lay down on my back onto the narrow table, and the radiation technicians strapped me onto the table by latching the sides of the helmet, in the shoulder areas, onto a pair of hinges.
I was not allowed to move at all, not even my arms or legs, during the 20-minute radiation sessions. I lied on my back, and the radiation machine would hover closely over my face, administering the daily dose.
I went through this process 30 times over a six-week period.
A week after completing my final radiation treatment, I received a “Certificate of Graduation” in the mail.
It said: “The Section of Radiation Oncology Presents To: Thomas Kessler
“Congratulations! This certifies that you have satisfied the requirements of your treatments including:
“Completing your Full Dose, Tolerating Cold Hands, a Hard Table and Holding Still.
“We wish you a swift recovery. Take care and we will miss you.”
November 13, 2017
I went in for my final radiation treatment on the second Monday of November. When I completed it, I walked out of the lab, through the narrow hallway and into the waiting room. My wife was there to congratulate me. A few minutes later, the radiation technicians gathered around me, along with the nurses and Dr. Walker.
They were there to watch me ring a bell, which would signify the completion of my treatments.
I slowly and emotionally read aloud the statement which is posted on the wall next to the bell.
“Ring this bell, three times well
“It’s toll to clearly say, my treatment’s done
“This course is run, and I am on my way!”
My wife and I hugged each other as the radiation technicians, nurses, Dr. Walker and the other patients and their family members in the waiting room clapped for us.
It was one of those milestone moments in life, in the same league as the day I received my master’s degree on December 18, 1993 and the day Catharine and I got married on July 14, 1995.
November 21, 2017
The side effects of the radiation quickly wore off. I no longer was tired all the time, and my appetite returned. I was allowed to eat a full diet with no restrictions, and food tasted great again.
On the third Tuesday of November, my wife and I celebrated my 53rd birthday with a long hike at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior followed by dinner at our favorite restaurant, San Tan Flat in Queen Creek.
Two days later, we celebrated Thanksgiving in the Catalina Foothills area of Tucson, a place where we used to visit on our vacations when we still lived in Ohio.
November 28, 2017
On the fourth Tuesday of November, exactly three months after undergoing surgery to remove oral cancer, I returned to the office to resume working my job as a sports page designer, copy editor and sports writer for the Casa Grande Dispatch. I was so glad to be back.
February 13, 2018
On the second Monday of February 2018, I underwent PET and CT scans to test for cancer. The next day, February 13, I went back to the MD Anderson Cancer Center to learn the results.
“Everything looks great,” Dr. Tomeh said. “There is no cancer.”
Catharine and I enjoyed a celebratory lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings in East Mesa, followed by a hike in the nearby Superstition Mountains.
May 24, 2018
Dr. Chafeek Tomeh saved my life, and Dr. Neil Sachanandani helped bring my life back to normal.
On the fourth Thursday of May 2018, I underwent a follow-up, reconstructive surgery where Dr. Sachanandani smoothed over the skin graft on my face, the graft which I had referred to as “the baseball.” He also straightened out my lip and pulled it across to the left corner of my mouth.
The result was that I no longer had to carry around a towel with me. No more drooling.
And I looked normal.
When I came out of the May 24 surgery, Catharine texted my brother Mike to say that Dr. Sachanandani had done an incredible job. He made me look like myself again.
June 15, 2019
Back in August of 2017, Dr. Tomeh said that I would “look different and talk different” after the cancer surgery. But with the help of my amazing doctors, nurses, technicians and therapists, I now look like myself, and my speaking voice has not changed at all.
Catharine and I are enjoying our life together in Arizona, and I’m lifting more weight during my bench press workouts than I was before my surgery.
We went back to Ohio last August to visit family and friends and to celebrate my mom’s 80th birthday.
In a few weeks, Catharine and I will be going on our annual trip to Flagstaff.
I am so thankful and grateful for every day.