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UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

John Gallagher — Conquering mountains and head and neck cancer

John Gallagher conquers Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park
John Gallagher climbed Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park less than a year after treatment for head and neck cancer.

John Gallagher first noticed a lump under his jaw right before his annual physical. His primary care physician at UC Davis Health System said it might be a sinus infection that had caused a lymph node to overreact, but to return if the lump didn’t go away.

Gallagher returned. He was referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who performed a biopsy. The diagnosis was throat cancer, and Gallagher was then referred to Dr. Gregory Farwell, a specialist in head and neck oncology.

Through several examinations, including an exploratory procedure to obtain tissue samples, Farwell and his team determined that Gallagher’s cancer had started in his tonsil and spread to a couple of lymph nodes. It was diagnosed as stage IV, due to the size of the tumor and the fact that it was in a couple different locations.

Gallagher underwent surgery soon thereafter. His surgery comprised two parts: external, to remove the lymph nodes from the neck; and via a robot (or minimally invasive surgery), which removed the cancerous tonsil via the mouth.

Surgery went smoothly. But a week after his operation, Gallagher experienced a frightening moment. At home, he happened to cough pretty hard — and felt a little blood going down his throat. (Gallagher later learned that this is a relatively common occurrence for adults who have had tonsils removed — more mature veins and capillaries have a higher risk of scabbing and then losing scabs, causing bleeding).

He and his wife called the team and rushed him to UC Davis, where the team was waiting to triage him. Farwell, who had been out at dinner with his wife, immediately came over to put Gallagher back into surgery in order to cauterize the wound inside his throat. “Dr. Farwell chose to leave his dinner and do the procedure personally, even though another doctor could have done it,” Gallagher said. “That’s exceptional — I consider that above and beyond.”

After healing from the surgery, Gallagher began a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation; done concurrently, the chemotherapy lasted for five weeks and radiation was five days a week for six weeks. “The radiation was the biggest challenge,” Gallagher said.

But his recovery has been excellent. “I quickly started to gain back weight and strength,” he said. “I’ve regained 80 percent of taste buds, and 30 percent of my salivary glands have regenerated. I have to walk around with a bottle of water,” he added with a chuckle.  

Although it can take one to two years for an individual to fully recover, patients are generally likely to regain 100 percent of their taste buds. The recovery percentage of salivary glands (the loss of which is due to the radiation, not to surgery) is generally smaller, but 50 percent is considered “in good shape.”

Apart from seeing Farwell every two months now for a check-up, life has pretty much returned to its normal for Gallagher, who lives in Sacramento with his wife and works as a commercial real estate broker.

He wanted to keep it that way. With the exception of about two weeks directly after surgery, Gallagher went to work every day. “I would attend to business from about 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., and then leave for my radiation treatment,” he said. “I was strong enough to work, and I felt that that was a positive thing for me — to not be at home, to try to maintain a semblance of a normal lifestyle.”

He added, “I feel so lucky to have had Dr. Farwell treating me with such wonderful technology and care. It helped make this bad experience seem like just a bump in the road.”

In fact, less than a year after his treatment, Gallagher climbed Mount Whitney down in Sequoia National Park. “I’m not sure Dr. Farwell has too many patients that have climbed the tallest mountain in the lower 48,” he joked. “I’ve done it before, but this time was special.”

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