Life can be a series of dances. Sometimes the music plays loudly like rock-n-roll where one can’t help but dance through clapping and smiling, playing out like an extraordinary melodrama. In other more quiet and solemn times, the soundtrack of life can be slow and pensive, when a slow dance cheek-to-cheek can transition into a solo sway of ambiguous inner thoughts causing beloved memories or extensive heartbreak. Greg Pierce has experienced them all through 33 years of a battle against a disease that set out three decades ago to take his life, but in doing so, cancer planted a seed of strong will and determination making a way for many dances to come.
In 1988, at 28, after having a persistent cough and runny nose, Pierce, an insurance salesman at the time, went to a doctor in Paris. During the exam, the doctor inquired about a lump in his throat that had gone unnoticed. After testing, several swollen lymph nodes were diagnosed as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Pierce was treated at Methodist Hospital in Memphis for about a year. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed, along with a multitude of procedures, countless stays in the hospital, side effects, and all the rest that goes along with a cancer diagnosis.
The following year, Pierce was given a clean bill of health and had monthly check-ups. Six months later at one of those check-ups, the doctor squeezed his neck looking for swollen lymph nodes, when Pierce said he nearly jumped off of the examining table. Bingo! He found one. That started diagnosis number two – lymphoma.
Treatment lasted about like the first, around a year. The difference being, having already undergone radiation just a year prior, Pierce could only be administered chemotherapy. Pierce said the medical staff explained that radiation is so extreme that a body can generally only withstand it once in a lifetime. So, after the second series of chemotherapy, he was again told that he was clean and good to go home and enjoy life. He only had to continue his monthly check ups.
This time, the doctors were right…for a time. For 18 years, Pierce and his wife Donna lived what they call a “pretty normal” life. Pierce said, “I started the Lawnmasters Lawn and Landscape business when we moved back after treatment was over, things were good, life was busy.” And then it happened…Pierce remembered, “One morning I woke up to feel a sore spot behind my right ear. I pushed on it and knew instantly that it was another swollen lymph node. I had gotten good at finding them.”
Pierce went for computerized tomography (CT) scan, which resulted in a false-negative diagnosis. He said, “A giant swollen lymph node in my neck said differently. A needle biopsy of that node revealed that this time we were dancing with squamous cell carcinoma, head and neck cancer, specifically in my right tonsil.” Pierce and the medical staff opted for surgery since radiation was not an option this third time around.
In December of 2008, Pierce had a radical tonsillectomy and the following January went to Vanderbilt Medical Center for a neck dissection of the right side. He recalled, “This was without a doubt the hardest surgery to recover from than anything that I have ever had done. After I recovered from the surgery, the tumor board at Vanderbilt had examined my records of radiation received in 88 and decided that since it had been so long ago and a weaker version, I could have more radiation, only not as much as they would normally give someone.”
Pierce underwent 25 sessions, which he admitted were brutal. He said, “Sores in my mouth and throat made eating and swallowing almost impossible. I lost 45 pounds during the whole process. Severe burns on the target site around my neck on both sides were quite painful.”
After that round of radiation, Pierce was clean for another 11 years. Then it happened again… in 2019, he knew something was wrong when he would get a tickle in his throat and cough so much that it gagged him. He said doctors scoped his throat four times and found nothing wrong. Persistence paid off when exploratory surgery and a biopsy were scheduled to take a closer look at the spot. He said, “My doctor at Vanderbilt, Dr. Sarah Rohde, who I praise quite often as being the best oncologist/ doctor/ENT that I have had in 33 years of dealing with cancer, didn’t think it was going to be anything to worry about. But after having my history, they don’t take chances. She told the anesthesiologist that this was going to be a quick in and out just to check it.” It was more than three hours later. Pierce said, “I woke up in recovery and the Resident who did the surgery came over to tell me the bad news that the spot was in fact cancer. This time it was a different type, hypopharyngeal cancer. This was much more severe than the other three diagnoses. Severe for a number of reasons. It’s a recurrence of head and neck cancer, which has a recurrence rate of over 50% and a survival rate of less than five years for 60%. Another reason is that because of where this lesion was located the entire larynx had to come out. Pierce had a radical laryngectomy where his trachea was disconnected from his nasal cavity and reconnected to his throat forming the stoma that he now breathes through. “So now I have a hole in my throat six inches from my lungs. Things like the normal flu, someone’s cold, pneumonia, and a variety of other conditions that would be extremely serious to me, not to mention this stupid COVID-19 virus, can take me out,” he said.
That surgery was January 28th. The pathology report said the surgeon got clean margins, meaning they cut back to clean tissue, no cancer left, and thankfully there were no lymph nodes involved. So another recurrence only three months out from what was supposed to be a successful surgery is very concerning.
Pierce’s next biopsy is May 13. This will be his fifth round with cancer. He said it is important to share his story and give hope where most have a hard time finding any. He said, “People need to have hope and inspiration that a cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence.” And then he smiled, “My inspiration flag is getting pretty tattered, but I still fly it.”
And so, at 60, Pierce dances on.