A Surgeon’s Perspective

A Surgeon’s Perspective

Dr. MccollisterA roomful of people at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center’s June cancer support group had the opportunity to hear former CRMC Surgeon Dr. Howard McCollister share what he described as a “tough” journey with cancer. McCollister was diagnosed in the summer of 2013 with stage 4 head and neck cancer. Dr. McCollister said the diagnosis came as a surprise. “I’ve always been healthy, never had any family issues with cancer or any of those things. I noticed a small ulcer in my mouth at the base of the tongue, which I struggled with. I saw an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT), and they didn’t think it was anything. Ultimately, I talked them into a biopsy.”

Following a biopsy, he underwent a PET scan, which revealed cancer in his lymph nodes. Things moved quickly, and Dr. McCollister found himself at Mayo Clinic in Rochester under the care of a specialist. Test and evaluations were run, and soon after, he was scheduled for surgery. “The operation took four hours. They removed part of my tongue and about 60 or so lymph nodes from the side of my neck. That was when they realized it was stage 4.”

His medical background didn’t mean he was immune to doubts, fears, and questions. “I’ve seen and treated a lot of head and neck cancers throughout my medical career. If there were one cancer I wish I would never have, it was head and neck cancer. I was scared about the entire thing. Will I die? Will I be cured? There is no way to predict that; it becomes a matter of numbers. Will I need radiation after surgery? In addition to that, I was worried about any disfigurement following surgery,” explained McCollister.

Following surgery, he spent weeks recovering before undergoing six weeks of radiation and chemo-radiation, both containing extremely high doses. “It wasn’t pleasant for me, my wife (Sally), or my family. It was very difficult to grasp. There are only two ways to go when faced with that type of thing. I like to go all out. Do you overtreat or undertreat? We went for the maximum treatment, and I may even have been overtreating,” said Dr. McCollister. If he opted to undergo both treatments, the survival rate was estimated to be 60 percent. “During the radiation treatments, they put a custom-made mask on my face that held me in place,” explained McCollister. He eventually started to get sores from the radiation and described eating food or drinking to be like razors. While he didn’t have a lot of depression, he admits he had a lot of weird thoughts going through his head and he did a lot of online shopping. To help pass the time while staying at the Hope Lodge in Rochester, he attended virtual meetings via Zoom while continuing to work at the hospital, and wrote a daily blog, which he described as therapeutic.

“All in all, it was a relatively bleak existence. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink. I lost about 45 pounds during treatment. I experienced dehydration. I just didn’t want to drink. Initially, I would drive back home on the weekends, but then it came to a point where it wasn’t safe for me to do that.” Following the six weeks of treatment at Mayo Clinic, the side effects from the chemo were so severe they opted not to do the last treatment. When he returned home, he had a feeding tube put in. “It was a simple procedure, but what we didn’t realize until later that evening was that the tube was defective,” said Dr. McCollister. He was leaking from a hole in his stomach and was admitted to the hospital for days with a dangerously high temperature of 106 degrees. Eventually, a new feeding tube was inserted for six months.

“Looking back, the whole procedure changed my perspective on many different things, especially as a doctor. Working alongside patients undergoing cancer treatments throughout the years, the conversations that we would have at the time of diagnosis and afterward were a lot different after I went through this than before. It was great to be able to bond with people that you’re taking care of. The whole process changes how you look at things,” explained McCollister.

Looking back, now, a little over a decade since his diagnosis, Dr. McCollister admits he still has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when visiting Rochester. “I see a lot of places and things that bring back unpleasant memories. The chemotherapy was hard, with lots of IVs and blood tests. The entire process gives you a lot of time to think. You feel different emotions. I felt fear and guilt about what I was putting my friends and family through.”

He admits getting through this experience wouldn’t have been possible without the support of his wife, Sally, who was also in attendance and spoke at the cancer support group. “What he didn’t tell you about the radiation is that it burned the entire inside and outside of his mouth and his tongue. Everything was covered in plastic when we walked into his room at Hope Lodge. There was a lot of depression on his part, which he would show by being quiet and withdrawn. The days become lonely when he can’t do anything and doesn’t talk. The final two weeks in Rochester were not easy for either of us,” recalled Sally. There were struggles as his recovery continued at home. “He couldn’t taste anything; they took out his salivary glands and thyroid, but he became obsessed with food because he couldn’t eat it or taste it. He read everything he could about food, overloaded our pantry with a bunch of stuff, and he would cook but wouldn’t eat it. He wanted the smell and to remember what it was like to taste things.”

Both Dr. McCollister and Sally agree that this entire experience reshaped him. “He came out the other end a different person, maybe a kinder or gentler person. It humbled him. One of the greatest gifts to come out of this was that our granddaughter was born, giving him a whole new sense of purpose. That was a huge gift,” said Sally.

The monthly cancer support group is an opportunity to share experiences, support one another, listen, and learn. Cancer Support Group meetings are held monthly on the third Thursday, with a soup and sandwich lunch. Each month a different topic related to cancer is highlighted. There is no cost to attend, but those planning to attend should e-mail dustine.parks@cuyunamed.org or call 218.546.4319. Participants can also attend the support group virtually. Send a message requesting a meeting link to dustine.parks@cuyunamed.org.