Editor’s Note: Terry Stebner passed away in June 2019 after a long and hard fought battle with head and neck cancer.
Accomplished endurance athlete Terry Stebner wasn’t too worried about the lump in his neck at first. He noticed it shortly after completing his ninth Ironman Triathlon, thinking it was simply a “kink”—nothing that a trip to the chiropractor couldn’t fix.
The chiropractic treatments didn’t help, and when the lump increased in size and a persistent headache took hold, he went to an urgent care physician and was prescribed an antibiotic. After an inconclusive needle biopsy, another doctor prescribed a different antibiotic.
When his symptoms persisted, Stebner went to a head and neck specialist, who recommended a tonsillectomy. A pathology test revealed advanced HPV-positive head and neck cancer.
“When I got the diagnosis my head was spinning,” Stebner says. “I never really knew anybody who had cancer.”
In April 2014, he completed a several-month course of concomitant radiation and cisplatin therapies. Unfortunately, in June 2015, his doctors determined that the cancer had metastasized to his lungs.
Throughout his treatment he has consulted his triathlon friend, Deric Wheeler, an associate professor in the Department of Human Oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, who has helped support Terry and provide awareness about both conventional and novel experimental cancer therapies.
Stebner, a retired U.S. postmaster from Gig Harbor, Wash., was accepted into a clinical trial at the University of Chicago for an immunotherapy drug, nivolumab. He responded well to the treatment. Three of the five nodules on his lungs disappeared, and the other two shrank substantially and stabilized for six months. However, a recent scan revealed these remaining two nodules had grown, and he is now receiving radiation therapy.
Despite his illness, Stebner has been able to continue his athletic pursuits. His first one-mile run a few months after his initial treatment was slow and tiring, but training and perseverance have enabled him to participate more fully in the sports he loves. He ran his first half marathon since his diagnosis in May and is looking forward to The Ride in September. He plans to complete the 100-mile route with Dr. Wheeler to raise money to advance the types of therapies that have given him “a second lease on life.”
Asked what he’ll likely be thinking about as he participates in The Ride, Stebner says, “How good it is to be out there riding and about the other patients I have gotten to know—a man who died from carcinoma and a woman with salivary gland cancer who has been through treatment after treatment and has suffered substantial disfigurement. While I’m riding I’ll think about these people and others and about how important it is to raise money and awareness to improve treatment.”
Because of immunotherapy—a type of treatment being developed at the University of Wisconsin—he has exceeded the life expectancy of most people with the same diagnosis, enabling him to live an active life with his family—a wife, two adult daughters, and a son (born shortly after Stebner’s diagnosis). He is also happily awaiting the birth of another child in August.
“I’m lucky,” Stebner says. “Yeah, my long-term prognosis is not good, but I’ve gotten the chance to have a second lease on life for a while. I want that for others. I want to beat this thing, and from talking with Deric about the developments in immuno- and viral therapies, I know it’s a promising time for cancer treatment. I’m happy be able to support this progress.”