Jason’s Story: How Proton Therapy Helped Him Overcome HPV-Positive Throat Cancer
Jason Brown sensed something wasn’t right. A swollen lymph node in his neck hadn’t gone down even after treatment with antibiotics. Soon after, the 46-year-old was diagnosed with HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer. Memorial Sloan Kettering experts used proton therapy to treat his tumor with limited side effects.
Jason Brown thought he was doing everything right to take care of his health. He and his wife, Kathleen, kept active by chasing after their three young children, Kirsten, Carter, and Nicholas. The family took advantage of the Southern California sunshine and enjoyed swimming, hiking, and riding their bikes.
“I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I really try to take care of myself,” explains the 46-year-old portfolio manager and financial adviser originally from Seattle.
So when Jason noticed a swollen lymph node in his neck in April 2017, he wanted to get it checked out. He made an appointment to see his doctor and left with a prescription for antibiotics. “When that didn’t work, my doctor said, ‘Well, leave it alone for a month and a half,’ ” Jason recalls.
But Jason sensed that something wasn’t right, so he pursued additional tests. Eventually, a doctor diagnosed him with squamous cell carcinoma that had originated at the base of his tongue. This disease is also called oropharyngeal cancer.
Jason found out that his cancer — like more than 70 percent of similar cases — was caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
“I learned that a lot of people have HPV already and aren’t aware of it, but for certain folks like me, it turns into this type of cancer,” he says.
Jumping into Action
After receiving his diagnosis, Jason quickly began exploring his options. A radiation oncologist in California suggested that he reach out to Nancy Lee, a head and neck cancer expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Dr. Lee is well known in the field for treating cancers like Jason’s with an advanced type of radiation therapy called proton therapy.
Compared with traditional radiation beams, proton beams can be delivered very precisely to treat tumors. This helps limit damage to nearby healthy tissue. For head and neck cancers, this can reduce the chance of side effects, such as dry mouth and difficulty eating and drinking.
“The radiation oncologist basically told me that Dr. Lee is the foremost expert” in proton therapy, Jason says. He called to schedule an appointment and arranged travel to MSK.
As soon as he got off the phone with Dr. Lee’s office, Jason felt he had a solid plan in place. Before he arrived for his first appointment, Dr. Lee’s team helped him organize the paperwork, preliminary tests, and scans that he needed. This gave Jason a lot of comfort.
“I really wanted to take care of this in the best way possible, and I was very impressed by everything I heard,” he recalls.
For her part, Dr. Lee knew almost immediately that Jason would be a good candidate for proton therapy.
“Jason is very young, and it’s really all about quality of life and reducing the chance of side effects,” she says. “With proton therapy, we can achieve that.”
A Different Kind of Birthday
Jason remembers his first appointment with Dr. Lee on August 8 quite well because it was right around his birthday.
At their first meeting, they spent time discussing the whole plan of action: Jason would receive proton therapy treatments every day for 35 days at the ProCure Proton Therapy Center in New Jersey. During the same period he would have three cycles of chemotherapy at nearby MSK Basking Ridge.
“I gave myself time to process and let each step soak in slowly,” he recalls, adding that he felt more and more confident as Dr. Lee described the details of each procedure and answered all of his questions.
The very next day, Jason met with Loren Michel, a medical oncologist at MSK Basking Ridge. “Dr. Michel told me it’s really a two-part solution,” Jason says. “To maximize the chance of success, we needed to use the chemo to weaken the cancer cells.”
Jason powered through a month of treatment, thanks in large part to his support network. While his children stayed behind in California, his wife and sister took turns being with him in New Jersey. Other family members, friends, and colleagues rallied to give Jason emotional, spiritual, and logistical support.
This network helped Jason keep a level head during a tough time. “I felt that I wasn’t on my own,” he says.
Dr. Lee and her team were also pillars that he leaned on throughout the process. “They were always asking if everything is OK. They were very supportive and willing to help,” Jason remembers. “I had a lot of questions, and they always had the answers.”
Due to the precise nature of proton therapy, Jason experienced very few side effects. The chemotherapy was manageable too. He was even able to maintain important parts of his day-to-day life. “I was still working out, eating well — I had a pretty good routine in New Jersey,” he recalls.
This is exactly the result Dr. Lee had hoped for. “Jason did very, very well,” she says. “He really had minimal side effects from his treatment.”
Spreading the Word
Jason’s kids were very happy to have their dad home when he finished treatment and returned to California in October 2017. Jason was eager to jump back into life as a father and business professional, but he quickly realized there would be a new normal. “I’d love to think I’m completely done. Mentally, I know I’m not,” he says. “This wasn’t a cold or the flu. This was something that changes the way we deal with life.”
Dr. Lee will continue to monitor Jason from New York City, where she’ll regularly review his tests and scans. “Even though Jason doesn’t live close by, I’ll continue to follow his treatment outcomes and coordinate with his doctors in California,” Dr. Lee says. “I never truly say goodbye to any of my patients because they become a part of my family.”
As he settles in to life after cancer, Jason has already started spreading the word in the hopes of helping others who may be heading down a similar path. “I’ve talked to people and said if you know anyone who has symptoms, like a swollen lymph node, get it checked out early,” he explains. “Don’t just wait it out and expect it to go away.”