When Charlie Guinn sits down to eat with his lovely wife of 39 years, he thoroughly enjoys each bite. It’s not just the food; the entire experience is a celebration. Just over a year ago, Mr. Guinn learned that he had stage IV throat cancer. For him, just surviving would have been an accomplishment — so swallowing again at a meal with a loved one is truly something special.
The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2013 over 41,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx and almost 8,000 died from the disease. But Mr. Guinn would be the first to say that he is one of the lucky ones. He is one of the first patients to undergo trans-oral robotic surgery (TORS) at the University of New Mexico Hospital. And the results have been stunning.
Mr. Guinn first discovered the lump in his throat while shaving. When it was still there a week later, he went to an urgent care center where he was immediately referred to an Ear, Nose and Throat physician. The physician ran a number of tests including a biopsy. When the results came back, the physician referred Mr. Guinn to Nathan Boyd, MD, at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center. It had been only a week and a half from that fateful visit to urgent care.
Mr. Guinn recalls, “When I first got there to see Dr. Boyd, one of the nurses told me, ‘You really hit the lottery because you have some of the finest doctors working on you.’ And I agree. Dr. Boyd is one of the most fantastic people I’ve ever met.” Dr. Boyd, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Surgery, Division of Otolaryngology at the UNM School of Medicine, is one of the first two physicians in New Mexico to offer TORS. The other physician, Andrew Cowan, MD, PhD, is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Surgery, Division of Otolaryngology at the UNM School of Medicine and initiated and launched the surgical program in early 2013.
After his initial consultation with Dr. Boyd, in which he learned about his surgical options, Mr. Guinn consulted with two other physicians at the UNM Cancer Center that same day. He met with his oncologist, Elizabeth McGuire, MD, an Associate Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology; and with his radiation therapy physician, William Thompson, MD, a Staff Physician in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology.
The physician team took Mr. Guinn’s preferences into account and agreed to offer him the TORS procedure. Dr. Boyd explained to Mr. Guinn that they would need to complete at least one exploratory surgery first. Mr. Guinn agreed. He recalls that meeting with a laugh and says, “Dr. Boyd told me, ‘My goal for you is, in one year, to have a [Blake’s] Lotaburger with cheese and green chile.’”
Three weeks later, Dr. Boyd completed three TORS procedures on Mr. Guinn and the tumor was out. But because the tumor cells had spread to the lymph nodes, even bursting one of them, Mr. Guinn’s UNM Cancer Center physician team decided to recommend chemotherapy and radiation as a preventive measure to make sure no cancer cells were lurking.
Mr. Guinn did not like the additional treatments but knew they were necessary. “The worst experience for me was the radiation,” he says. He experienced some third-degree burning during his course of treatment, but has healed now. He shrugs off the experience saying it’s nothing compared to what burn victims go through.
His chemotherapy experience was a little better. Mr. Guinn didn’t feel like eating very much and he lost weight. “That was the positive of all this,” he laughs. “I do not recommend the diet, but it was the greatest thing.” Another side effect was his hair changing color. “I didn’t lose my hair. I’ve been silver and grey since my late 20s and now my hair is black. At first, I was mad.” But, he’s now accustomed to the darker hair.
Mr. Guinn reflects on what the experience of the past year has brought him. “It’s made me understand what other people go through and what their families go through,” he says. “And I realize that it’s not talking about it but just asking: How are you feeling? What can I do for you?"
Additionally, he and wife have gotten closer. “We’ve been married for 39 years. And we never thought we could get closer.” They are planning a celebratory vacation together.
Finally, Mr. Guinn credits his recovery to his faith, positive attitude, and the people around him who helped him keep that positive attitude. His family was with him at every single appointment. His family and friends sent their prayers and cards, meals, and other helpful items. And his entire treatment team at the UNM Hospital and the UNM Cancer Center gave him the confidence that he would pull through. “Ever since I met Dr. Boyd, not once did I think I was going to die,” he says. “I tell people, you don’t need to go anywhere. These people will take good care of you.”
At his latest visit recently, Mr. Guinn gave Dr. Boyd a gift card to Blake’s Lotaburger. He laughs as he recalls the look on his surgeon’s face. “I told him, ‘Have one on me!’”
About the UNM Cancer Center
The UNM Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in the state. One of just 68 premier NCI-Designated Cancer Centers nationwide, the UNM Cancer Center is recognized for its scientific excellence, contributions to cancer research, the delivery of high quality, state of the art cancer diagnosis and treatment to all New Mexicans, and its community outreach programs statewide. Annual federal and private funding of over $71 million supports the UNM Cancer Center’s research programs. The UNM Cancer Center treats more than 60 percent of the adults and virtually all of the children in New Mexico affected by cancer, from every county in the state. It is home to New Mexico’s largest team of board-certified oncology physicians and research scientists, representing every cancer specialty and hailing from prestigious institutions such as M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins University, and the Mayo Clinic. Through its partnership with Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces, the UNM Cancer Center brings world-class cancer care to the southern part of the state; its collaborative clinical programs in Santa Fe and Farmington serve northern New Mexico and it is developing new collaborative programs in Alamogordo and in Roswell/Carlsbad. The UNM Cancer Center also supports several community outreach programs to make cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment available to every New Mexican. Learn more at www.cancer.unm.edu.