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Casting for His Recovery



Lee Cook drops his fishing line in the water, standing on a quiet dock on a sunny fall morning.

He’s a patient fisherman, quite happy to sit all day waiting for a bite if he needs to.

“I didn’t used to have time to do this, but since I’ve been retired, I always make time to fish,” says the 81-year-old man, casting out a little farther into the water. “It’s not so much about what you catch, but just being out there.”

The treatment Lee received for cancer at the base of his tongue has allowed him to get back to fishing and the other things he loves to do. Coming back from cancer wasn’t easy, but the attentive care he got at Sanford Cancer made all the difference, he says.

“I’ve been going to those folks at Sanford for 30 years,” says Lee. “Sanford – that’s home for me. I’d recommend them to anybody.”

Coughing without cause

Lee’s first sign of the cancer was a scary symptom. He started coughing up blood regularly. Nothing hurt and there were no other signs of any problems.

When his primary care doctor couldn’t figure out what was causing the disturbing cough, Lee went to see oral cancer specialist Dr. John Lee. Within minutes of the beginning his appointment at Sanford Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic, he had an answer.

A view of his throat showed cancer on the base of his tongue. The cancer was a common type, testing positive for Human Papillomavirus, a variety of cancer where Dr. Lee has been focusing research.

“I was kind of stunned, but what do you do?,” says Lee. “There was nothing but to move forward.”

Doctors told Lee that the treatment would be challenging, but he had no hesitation moving forward. He trusted his doctors to suggest the best course of action for him.

“I told them, ‘let’s go,’ and that was that,” says Lee. “I really had no fear.”

Life-saving treatment

He followed surgery to remove the cancerous growth with seven weeks of concurrent chemotherapy and radiation. One of the hardest parts was simply having to lie still while the radiation was applied to a very small area in his face.

The radiation treatment was “no picnic,” he admits. At one point he looked at a picture of his mouth and saw that the tissue in the area where the tumor had been had turned black from the radiation.

“The radiation was tough on me, but it’s the one that saved my life,” he says.

The radiation and chemotherapy also affected his ability to eat. During the worst of it, he used a feeding tube to keep his body functional and fed. Sanford nutrition support services and cooking classes designed for oral cancer patients helped him learn how to adjust his diet as his body healed.

Throughout the process, Sanford staff, especially oncology nurse navigator Jenn Schmidt took care of his needs and answered his questions.

“When I had a problem I’d call Jenn and she’d take care of it immediately,” Lee said. “Everybody was wonderful.”

Feeling good again

While Lee deals with a few side effects, a persistently dry mouth and sensitivity to sunlight, he’s back to his normal self again. He eats regular food again with gusto.

“I’m back to pizza,” he says, with a sly smile. “My life is okay. I can do anything that I want to.”

Lee now feels good and his body is clear of any signs of cancer. He said he’s happy to see his body weight slowly creeping back up with his return to health and healthy eating.

In fact, Lee is thinking it may be time to schedule another fishing trip out west river with his son. They’ll sit by the side of the lake for hours, hoping that the walleye find his baited hook irresistible.

“You find out there’s a lot of survivors out there and I’m one of them,” Lee says, holding his fishing pole over the water. “If I didn’t kick this I’d miss out on a lot of fishing. There’s plenty more of them out there to catch.”

Posted Date: November 2012

Casting for His Recovery

Lee Cook likes nothing better than sitting by the side of the lake, his fishing pole in hand. Sanford’s treatment for his oral cancer got him feeling like going fishing once again.