Sailing Through the Storm: Tybee Resident Shares His Cancer Experience
When Hurricane Matthew roared up the coast, it trashed the walkway Gary Exley uses to get to his beloved dock on Tybee Island. But Exley’s taking it all in stride. After all, he’s weathered a much more personal storm in recent years.
In September 2014, Exley noticed a small lump on the left side of his neck. His throat wasn’t bothering him, he didn’t have a cough, and the lump didn’t hurt, so he left it alone. But it didn’t go away.
That November, Exley asked his primary care doctor about the lump. He was referred to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist who did a biopsy to test tissue in the lump. A few days later, Exley received devastating news.
“They said I had squamous cell cancer in my lymph node. I kept thinking, ‘not me. I’m healthy. I’m immune to this sort of thing,’” said Exley.
Exley began researching his options online. He conferred with his daughters, Aimie and Ashlie, who are both nurses. And he discussed it with his long-time friend, Janice. His ENT was recommending exploratory surgery to see how extensive the cancer was. But before he went any further, Exley wanted a second opinion. That’s when he was referred to Guy Petruzzelli, M.D., Ph.D., MBA, an otolaryngologist and the leader of the head and neck surgery program at the Curtis and Elizabeth Anderson Cancer Institute (ACI) at Memorial University Medical Center. Exley called Petruzzelli’s office and left a message. That evening, Petruzzelli called him back on his cell phone and arranged to see him the very next day.
At the appointment, Petruzzelli slid a small scope through Exley’s nostril, and soon Exley was looking right at the enemy.
“A picture is worth a thousand words. Dr. Petruzzelli showed me my tonsil area on a monitor. It was covered with something that looked like tiny yellow fish eggs or beads,” said Exley. He was looking at primary squamous cell cancer that had started below his tonsil on the side wall of his throat. The cancer had spread to the lymph node in Exley’s neck. “He told me what he recommended and answered every question I had. Right then, I knew Dr. ‘P’ was going to be my doctor.”
That evening, Exley again turned to his support team, Aimie, Ashlie, and Janice, for advice. They all agreed that he should follow Petruzzelli’s recommendations and plan of care. Two days later, on January 16, 2015, Exley underwent a five-hour surgery at Memorial University Medical Center.
Petruzzelli performed a neck dissection. He exposed the neck with an incision that began in the hairline behind the ear and went across the collarbone to the breastbone. He removed all of the cancer in the neck, but preserved the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles. The primary tumor in Exley’s throat was removed through his mouth with the assistance of a robotic surgical device. With the 3D visualization and enhanced manipulation of the robotic instruments, Petruzzelli could precisely remove the tumor without harming the surrounding healthy tissue, meaning Exley’s voice and appearance would be normal after surgery.
Exley spent four days in the hospital recovering. When he went home, he had pain in his throat and he knew eating would be a challenge. Exley had decided early on that he would do whatever he could to stay healthy and strong throughout his treatment. Failure to eat would weaken his body and possibly result in a feeding tube, so he forced himself to eat soft foods. He researched meal replacement drinks to learn which ones had the most nutrients in a small quantity. This allowed him to drink less and still get adequate nutrition. He lost 12 pounds after surgery, but soon gained it back by following a healthy diet.
Exley also maintained a positive attitude. He spent plenty of time sitting peacefully on his dock. And, he says his three grandchildren were wonderful therapy. They live out of state, but he visits with them online through Skype and FaceTime. After he recovered from surgery, Exley moved on to the next phase of his treatment – 33 radiation treatments and multiple rounds of chemotherapy. He was so impressed with Petruzzelli and his surgical outcome that he chose to have all of his treatment at the ACI.
Exley has now been cancer-free for two years, and he still radiates the same positive attitude that carried him through his treatment.
“I just turned 70,” he said. “I’ve always been an active person, but 70 bothered me – that sounds old! But it’s just a number, and I can still do anything I want.”
And what he wants to do now is rebuild that dock walkway, just like he rebuilt his health.
Gary Exley is one of four grateful patients who will be honored at the ACI Luncheon: A Gold Medal Event featuring Olympian Shannon Miller. The luncheon, a fundraiser for the ACI, will be held Thursday, December 8. Purchase tickets or learn more.
Learn more about the head and neck surgery program at the ACI.