• Across the State and Back Again: One Man’s Quest to Find the Best Cancer Treatment in Georgia

    Ken ScarlettKevin Scarlett has big plans for the year. The 34-year-old Savannah resident and his wife, Morphia, are raising four children – ages 11, 8, and 5-year-old twins. He plans to start an organization that raises awareness and funds for head and neck cancers. And he’s learning to speak again after his own harrowing battle with cancer.

    Scarlett has spindle cell sarcoma, a type of cancer that attacks the connective tissues in his throat. His cancer journey began in October 2012 with a sore throat that would not go away. One morning, he began coughing up blood and tissue. He drove himself to the emergency room at Effingham County Hospital. The doctor sent a sample of coughed-up tissue to a lab for testing and told Scarlett to visit an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT). In the four days leading up to his ENT appointment, Scarlett began to have trouble breathing. He felt as if he was in a continuous chokehold.

    The ENT discovered a blockage in Scarlett’s throat that looked like a tumor. He referred Scarlett for a PET scan at a nearby imaging center in Pooler. By this time, Scarlett was having trouble breathing and talking. He was about to begin the PET scan when his doctor received the pathology report from the first tissue mass collected in the emergency room. It was spindle cell cancer and Scarlett needed to be admitted to the hospital immediately.

    “My first thought was, how was I going to tell my wife,” said Scarlett. “I texted her and told her I needed her to be strong. I asked her to find someone to watch the kids and to contact my doctor immediately.”

    On November 5, 2012, Scarlett had surgery at a Savannah hospital to remove the tumor in his throat. At first, the problem seemed to be solved. He was not referred for any additional cancer treatment. But within a month, Scarlett began feeling the same discomfort. Another tumor had grown in his throat. He had a second surgery on January 15, 2013. Within a month, yet another tumor grew.

    Spindle cell sarcoma is rare, and Scarlett’s treatment options were limited. But he was determined to find the best treatment and the best doctor. Scarlett contacted the American Cancer Society and asked them to recommend treatment centers in Georgia. He visited hospitals in Augusta and Atlanta, but he knew in his heart that these facilities were not right for him. Scarlett instead spent two weeks at a holistic treatment center in north Georgia called Wildwood Lifestyle Center.

    “At Wildwood, I learned how to help my body heal with the right balance of diet and exercise. I became a vegetarian and this decision helped in the healing and recovery process for me,” said Scarlett.

    Scarlett felt rejuvenated and empowered, even though the tumor in his throat was growing rapidly. He decided to have a total laryngectomy at Emory Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta. Then his doctor at Emory recommended he visit a highly trained expert, Guy Petruzzelli, M.D., Ph.D., MBA, from the Curtis and Elizabeth Anderson Cancer Institute (ACI) at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah. Within 24 hours, Scarlett, his wife, and his children were back at home in coastal Georgia, sitting in Petruzzelli’s office.

    “Dr. Petruzzelli made my family feel very comfortable because he took the time to speak with the kids in a way they could understand. I felt a world of relief to finally be able to relax and focus on healing and the next phase of my cancer treatment,” said Scarlett. “I was referred to Augusta, and sought treatment in Atlanta, only to discover that the best treatment for me was right at home in Savannah.”

    On April 11, 2013, Petruzzelli performed a total laryngectomy on Scarlett. The complex procedure involves removing the entire larynx (voice box). Scarlett would have to learn a new way to speak. Petruzzelli created an opening in Scarlett’s neck, called a stoma, that he uses to breath. After surgery, Scarlett had six weeks of radiation treatment at the ACI under the direction of Aaron Pederson, M.D. He credits the team at the ACI with helping him get through the treatment.

    “Their consistent positive energy and compassion motivated me each day to wake up and drive in for my treatment,” said Scarlett. He also derives strength from his faith and the prayers and support of many people.

    Today, Scarlett is ready to move on. He has a prosthetic device to help him speak. He continues to live a healthy lifestyle and wants to help others by raising awareness about head and neck cancers. He offers the following advice for anybody diagnosed with cancer:

    • Realize that cancer is something that is bigger than you, so embrace having a team of people around you to guide you through it.
    • Ask questions, learn as much as you can, and be honest with your doctors about the lifestyle choices you make.
    • Join support groups, either online or through the ACI.
    • Appreciate your caretakers and realize that this experience is affecting them too.
    • Drink three cups of patience each day. You’re going to need it.
    • Stay stress-free as much as possible. This may mean limiting your contact with negative people. Stress affects your immune system.
    • Enjoy each and every day to the fullest. Carpe diem!
    Learn more about the head and neck cancer surgery program at the ACI.