It’s been two and a half years since Steve Downey’s life as he knew it was rocked with a cancer diagnosis. At 46 years old, he was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma of his tongue.
In the spring of 2015, Downey, of West Chester, felt like there was something caught in his throat. Upon recollection, about a year prior he began having a hard time swallowing pills and vitamins. Other symptoms included pain in his throat, along with some breathing and respiratory problems. “One day I felt like something was in my throat,” explains Downey. He inserted his finger in his mouth and felt something back near the base of his tongue. He immediately made an appointment with his primary care doctor who sent him directly to an ENT specialist, Lawrence Katin, MD, with Ear Nose and Throat Associates of Paoli. It was confirmed that what Downey felt was a tumor. A biopsy was scheduled, and to Downey’s surprise a few days after he received a call that it was cancerous.
Downey, who had a part-time job as a personal trainer and nutrition consultant, was shocked. “I was angry at first,” he admits. “I worked hard at having a healthy lifestyle. I ate well, slept well and exercised all the time. So to hear that I had cancer I couldn’t help but think, ‘Why am I working so hard to be healthy when this can happen?’”
Dr. Katin recommended Downey see oncologist Christine Szarka, MD, of Main Line HealthCare Hematology and Oncology Associates at The Cancer Center of Paoli Hospital. Dr. Szarka gave him an encouraging prognosis: the cancer was at stage one and recovery should be relatively quick. Downey would have to do both chemotherapy and radiation, but once that was complete the doctor assured him that he should be able to resume his previous lifestyle. “I felt so relieved when I heard this,” Downey recalls. Dr. Szarka also explained that his quick recovery also had to do with the exemplary condition of Downey’s health and overall wellness prior to diagnosis, which made him realize that all the hard work he put into his health had been worth it.
Downey went through three rounds of chemotherapy and 18 rounds of radiation—all at Paoli. A cancer diagnosis, no matter the degree of severity, is always overwhelming to a patient, and Downey credits Dr. Szarka and his radiation oncologist, Won Chang, MD, for giving him easy to understand information about his diagnosis, thoroughly explaining what the treatment plan would be and how he should be feeling throughout it. “I call Dr. Szarka the ‘Rockstar of Oncology’,” says Downey. “She is very experienced and knows her stuff. Her mannerism isn’t cold and isn’t over-sympathetic—it’s right in the middle. She’s very informative and tells you exactly what’s going on. There’s no guesswork. I felt totally at ease with her.” In Downey’s experience, going through radiation was more difficult than chemotherapy. “Dr. Chang warned me about some of the side effects, so I was prepared,” says Downey. “My mouth felt dry and raw. I also had trouble swallowing.”
Downey’s relationship with Paoli Hospital didn’t end with treatment. Once his treatment plan was complete, Kathleen Sacharian, a nurse practitioner who heads Paoli’s Cancer Survivorship Program, contacted him. The survivorship program is designed to help patients transition to life following treatment, by alleviating concerns and answering questions. “I met with Kathleen and she gave me a lot of recommendations and answered all of my questions,” says Downey. He also attended two workshops organized by the program: one with a dietician and one on transcendental meditation. “I found the survivorship program to be really beneficial,” he says.
This past fall Downey hit a big milestone in his journey with cancer. He reached two years since he’s been in remission. “I have some issues with not producing enough saliva, but other than that everything is back to normal,” he says. “I feel great.”
The Paoli patient experience
Each type of cancer comes with its own set of challenges. At Paoli, we give you the tools and resources you need to meet these challenges head on. Our cancer doctors (oncologists) provide compassionate care through all stages of cancer treatment—from diagnosis to recovery. We create personalized treatment plans for each patient based on accurate and advanced diagnostic testing. We strive to effectively treat cancer while helping you maintain a good quality of life throughout treatment.