Harvey's Courageous Story
Harvey Miller's pro-active, can-do approach to life has served him well on many occasions, but perhaps none so well as when he faced a diagnosis of cancer.
Citing specific dates, times and developments throughout his treatment and recovery, Harvey's recollection is straightforward and direct, served with a wry sense of humor.
Harvey's wife, Becky, a retired RN, was there with him step by step, strong in support and positive attitude. A support system is critical to any cancer diagnosis. She summarizes her philosophy on cancer this way: "It's not a ‘me' disease. It's a ‘we' disease."
Together, their no-nonsense response to Harvey's initial symptom - swollen glands - put him on a fast track to treatment and recovery, thanks to a first-rate Mercy medical team.
Harvey's swollen neck glands appeared in October 2007. When two weeks of antibiotics did nothing, his family doctor ordered a CT scan. One day later, Harvey's otolaryngologist identified Stage 4 carcinoma in tissue at the base of his tongue. The next day, the Millers met with the hematologist/oncologist who recommended treatment with radiation and chemotherapy. The following morning, they met with radiation oncologist Dr. Wook Lee, and a series of biopsies and tests began.
"We had trust in our family doctor," Harvey says, which helped in accepting referrals and the treatment plan. "We wound up with a team of pretty homogeneous people."
Responding quickly was vital; the cancer was metastasizing into Harvey's neck lymph glands. He underwent seven weeks of daily radiation therapy at Mercy's Hall Radiation Center, using the advanced TomoTherapy treatment system, and also chemotherapy during the first week.
The TomoTherapy system provides unprecedented precision in radiation therapy, so it was especially well-suited to the type and location of cancer Harvey had. It selectively destroys cancerous tumors while avoiding damage to surrounding, healthy tissue. This minimizes side effects for patients.
The radiation left Harvey's throat dry, with little saliva and swallowing was hard. By mid-December, Harvey had lost about 60 pounds and had little appetite. But a Mercy nutritionist worked with the Millers to adapt Harvey's diet - what he now calls "blender food" - to anything soft and easy to swallow, plus lots of fluids, which helped.
Things went well until Dec. 18, when dehydration led to Harvey's collapse in the shower. He was hospitalized until Dec. 24 with intravenous fluids. From then on, Harvey worked on boosting his fluid intake.
In mid-March 2008, more tests showed residual cancer cells on the left side of Harvey's neck. He could choose between 12 weeks more of chemotherapy or surgery to remove the lymph glands and some muscle.
Harvey opted for surgery. He recalls offering the doctors a little help:
"I said, ‘I've got a pocket knife here,'" he says with his typical deadpan humor.
The surgery on April 7 was more serious than it seemed, Becky says. Harvey ended up in the ICC on a respirator because of concerns with possible sleep apnea, but he recovered well.
Since then, with regular reviews, he's steadily gained. Harvey drove himself to all his appointments and never required a feeding tube, earning him his "one tough cookie" label from his doctors.
"My doctor said, ‘We're going to be real good friends after this,'" Harvey recalls with a grin. It's now July 2009. "I'm at the semi-annual visit stage now. I'm cancer-free. Not cured until it's been five years. We don't use ‘the C word' until after five years."
Today, he says the only lingering sign of having had treatment is that it did alter his food preferences. Spicy foods don't bother him now, dry foods do. So he prefers meals with sauces. Other than that, he feels great.
Harvey is blunt in his advice for those facing cancer.
"Once you're diagnosed, you're diagnosed," he explains. "The sooner you face up to it and get treatment, the better chance you have. Denial and procrastination don't help. You have to put trust in the treatment regime put in front of you. Move ahead, move forward."
Both Millers found comfort in the upbeat, personal care of the Mercy care team, and doctors' collaboration in finding the best treatment possible for Harvey. They remember the radiation technician who greeted him with a smile, day after day, and walked Becky through the steps of Harvey's treatment.
"These care providers become part of your family," Harvey says. "It's just very uplifting."
"Even in chemotherapy," Becky adds, "they do everything to make it a positive experience. Everyplace he went, they knew his name."
Becky also credits Mercy's TomoTherapy's precise, pinpointed treatment ability with helping Harvey's excellent recovery.
Many think that a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis equates a death sentence, but it's part of a classification system with treatment to fit, Becky says.
"People who haven't been through this don't understand," she explains. "Everybody's cancer is different. Everybody's treatment is different."
While the Millers came through Harvey's cancer journey well, Becky admits, "Your long-term outlook on certain things changes. You face your own mortality."
But Harvey, now 66, considers his cancer experience primarily "an inconvenience."
"Cancer is a life-changing experience, more so for others than for me because I've been able to do the things I did before," he says. "We did the right thing: we didn't wait. If you don't have the expectation of success, you're not going to have it."