Treatment for salivary cancer didn’t curb man’s passion for travel and food

Stan Williams is hatching another trip with his wife. This time to New Orleans, Louisiana. Just three months ago, they had explored the gorgeous rainforests and beaches of Belize. And before that, they were strolling the neighborhoods of New York City.

“Stephanie wants to go to the French Quarter,” Stan says. “And we’ll take a boat ride down the bayou. I really just like to taste the flavors of the city and back roads of the Old South. Visiting those little restaurants where they have handmade signs. Hooking up with the locals to learn about their history and culture. And enjoy the great food.”

Diagnosed with cancer of the salivary glands nearly three years ago, Stan hasn’t lost the joy he finds in travel — and good cooking.

“I’m living life like I never had cancer,” he says.

Stan was one of the first patients treated for salivary gland cancer at Penn Medicine’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Doctors there were cautious, but confident that protons would be less likely to generate the pernicious aftereffects so common to head and neck cancer patients treated with intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT).

And they were right.

Protons reduced the unintended dose of radiation to Stan’s mouth and tongue. “It didn’t spray radiation throughout my neck and mouth,” he says. “It was a beam. One straight beam.”

The sole side effect of Stan’s proton therapy was an ulcer that had developed under Stan’s tongue early in his treatments. The pain from the mouth sore was pretty significant at first, but medications lessened the discomfort.

Stan continued to taste food normally and produce saliva, which ensured that he could eat during his nearly seven weeks of proton treatments, and maintain a healthy weight — and his strength.

“I was treated every day after work,” says Stan. “The treatments didn’t tire me out. And my appetite never slowed down. In fact, after every treatment, my wife and I would go downstairs to the restaurant and get a cup of soup. Tomato bisque with rice.”

Stan and Stephanie were vacationing in Jamaica in November 2011 when he pointed out a lump on his neck. “Because it wasn’t bothering me, I didn’t think it was that serious,” he says.

Back home in Philadelphia, “My primary doctor said, ‘Yeah, there’s a mass there. You need to get a biopsy,’” Stan recalls. The biopsy needle drew samples from three different spots on the 3-centimeter tumor and found no cancer.

“My doctor said, ‘Let’s get rid of it. It doesn’t belong there,’” says Stan. “When they looked inside the mass, they found a cancer cell in the middle. It had been missed by the biopsy needles. They said, ‘It’s malignant.’ And my wife and I took that news hard. We prayed on it. It was a very emotional time.”

At Penn Medicine, head and neck cancer tumors typically are surgically removed, followed by radiation treatment. “They told me about Dr. [Alexander] Lin and that I should see him,” Stan says. “After hearing about proton radiation, it was a done deal. He told me I might lose my sense of taste during treatment. But I felt it was worth taking that risk.”

Still, Stephanie and Stan thought it wise to explore other alternatives. “We got two or three more opinions,” he says. “One had nothing good to say about proton radiation.”

But their preference for protons was unshaken. Stan began the first of 33 proton treatments in April 2012. Proton therapy was completed in May 2012.

“They made a heavy facemask to hold my head still during treatment,” says Stan. “You ever see Hannibal Lecter? Like that, but made out of mesh and weights.”

In September 2014, Stan retired from a 20-year career at Philadelphia Gas Works, where he serviced natural gas lines inside homes. “My wife works for an airline,” Stan says. “It gives us a great opportunity to travel. And we do. We travel a lot.”

They haven’t even begun their trip to New Orleans, and Stan and Stephanie are eyeing another overseas trip. She’s leaning toward Paris or Italy. “Someday, I want to try an Asian country,” Stan says. “Authentic food is what I like.”