By Dawn Dorsey, Staff Writer
Cynthia Pettett admits she probably would still be smoking if she hadn't gotten cancer of the larynx (voicebox). After all, she started when she was 15. Even now, when she sits down with her morning coffee, that itch for a cigarette flashes across her mind.
When she was diagnosed in 2002, Pettett made the decision to travel from her home in Kentucky to M. D. Anderson, where she participated in a study that looked at treating larynx cancer with chemotherapy alone, rather than the conventional protocol that combines chemotherapy and radiation.
"When they asked me if I wanted to try to treat the cancer with chemotherapy, I jumped at the chance," she says. "I just felt like I couldn't handle the radiation."
Biopsy confirms cancer
Pettett and her husband are from Illinois, but they retired early to a scenic lake region of Kentucky, where they ran a marina for 20 years before she got cancer and they retired again -- this time for real.
Before she was diagnosed, Pettett didn't feel sick, but she was hoarse and lost a lot of weight. When she got down to 94 pounds, she knew something was seriously wrong. Still, she put off going to the doctor because a new otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) was scheduled to come to Murray, Ky., where her primary care doctor is.
The new doctor performed a throat biopsy and told Pettett she had cancer of the larynx. Since their daughter lived in Bryan, Texas, about 90 miles from Houston, Pettett and her husband loaded up the car and drove to M. D. Anderson.
Texas treatment begins
At M. D. Anderson, she had six rounds of chemotherapy, each round lasting three days. The chemo was intense and required frequent blood tests to be sure her kidneys were functioning at the right level.
The treatment required a lot of energy; when it started in the late afternoon it lasted until the early morning hours. The Pettetts stayed at a hotel close to M. D. Anderson and between treatments drove back to Bryan so she could recover.
"A protocol nurse was assigned to me, and that really helped," Pettett says. "I could call her when I had any problems with side effects."
Side effects were bothersome
Although they weren't life threatening, there were several unpleasant side effects. Among them were nausea, helped by a pill before each treatment, and anxiety -- although Pettett says she never was frightened of the treatment.
"I was so restless I would walk the halls of the hospital with my IV pole while I was getting chemo," she remembers. "I was too anxious to sleep at night, but a sleeping pill really helped."
Although the chemo didn't make her hair fall out, Pettett did shave her head.
"The chemo really made my scalp hurt," she says. "That was the worst side effect. One of the nurses told me to have my daughter shave my head. What a relief! It felt so much better after that."
One of the most inconvenient parts of the treatment from her point of view was having to drink 7-8 bottles of water each day.
"I've never been much of a water drinker," she says. "My poor husband had to make me drink the water."
She knew she was improving
At first doctors weren't sure the treatment would be successful.
"But I knew it was working," she says. "I can't explain, but something was different and my voice was stronger. Then they did a biopsy at the next session, and sure enough I was right. It was working."
Treatment pays off
Now cancer free for five years, Pettett returns to M. D. Anderson every year.
"Things are back to normal now, and I'm so glad I had the treatment," she says. "If the cancer comes back, which of course I hope doesn't happen, I can always have another type of treatment later."
Q&A: Treating Larynx Cancer With Chemotherapy Alone
Nonconventional Treatment Works for Larynx Cancer Patient
By Dawn Dorsey, Staff Writer
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