In late 2012, Juan Tapia noticed a lump in his neck while shaving. He had just gotten over the flu, so slightly swollen tonsils didn’t concern him much. The lump didn’t go away, and he had it checked during his regular physical exam in early 2013.
On his doctor’s recommendation, he got a CT scan and was sent to a specialist for a biopsy, which revealed it to be Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma. “It didn’t sound too promising,” Tapia says.
Like many people in a similar situation, he looked online for information about the disease and was discouraged by what he read. “I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to take care of my two daughters?’” Tapia says. “I’m lucky I had great support from my family.”
He got a second opinion at the UW Carbone Cancer Center and Dr. Gregory Hartig, chief of Head and Neck Surgical Oncology in the Division of Otolaryngology at the University of Wisconsin, removed one tonsil and several lymph nodes and biopsied the other tonsil.
Following surgery, he underwent radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Tapia appreciates the support from Hartig and UW Radiation Oncologist Dr. Randy Kimple.
“They made me feel 1,000 percent better than before,” Tapia says. “They were positive and encouraging and explained everything that was going to happen to the letter.”
As expected, Tapia experienced side effects of treatment. The combined radiation and chemotherapy made him so nauseated that he lost 50 pounds.
Once he regained the weight and his strength—about six months after treatment began—he was able to return to his job as a police officer in Rockford, Ill. He’s now starting to plan for the future. He’ll be 52 this year and expects to retire in about two years. He’s considering becoming a teacher and sports coach, which he had done before his career in law enforcement.
“Two years will go by in a heartbeat. I’d like to teach for a few years and coach like when I had time to do back in my early 20s,” Tapia says. “The job I currently have is pretty awesome. I have a great bunch of co-workers. We get along really well. Staying here another six or eight years would not be a bad thing, but I’d like to teach again. We’ll see what happens.”
Tapia is grateful for the care he received at the UW Carbone Cancer Center and is happy to volunteer for The Ride, a bicycle fundraiser for cancer research at the University of Wisconsin, which will take place on Sept. 17.
“Luckily, the outcome for me has been excellent, and I hope The Ride can improve outcomes for more people going through the same thing,” Tapia says.