Parotid cancer at 30 years old: A survivor tells his story


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June 2 was National Cancer Survivor’s Day. To mark the day, HellaWella talked with Rik Lee, who was diagnosed with parotid cancer at age 30.

parotid gland in article

Photo source: ParotidMD.com

The parotid is the largest of the salivary glands — and if it sounds very familiar, it’s because Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch succumbed to cancer of the parotid and lymph node on May 4, 2012, at age 47. According to the Mayo Clinic, salivary gland cancer is rare and manifests most often in the parotid, which is located in front of the ear.

Lee has a history of cancer in his family. His maternal uncle and maternal grandfather both died of lung cancer when they were older. Both men smoked for many years.

165146385He was in his mid to late 20s when he came down with a cold. Lee’s salivary glands became swollen as a result. Once he got better, everything went back to normal, except for the left parotid, which remained enlarged. He had a noticeable lump, but not terribly so because it was behind his ear.

Lee ignored it for a few years — don’t do this! — before finally heading to his general practitioner, who in turn directed him to Cookridge Hospital in Leeds, a specialist oncology center. They did blood work and a needle biopsy, which confirmed the tumor was malignant.

He was very lucky. The tumor had not spread to the lymph nodes — as it had with Yauch — nor had it metastasized to other parts of his body. Despite having a lump for a few years, doctors intervened just as it had gone malignant.

Lee was scheduled for surgery to remove the mass. He was also provided with counseling.

Lee, who was young and in relatively good health otherwise, had good odds. At stage 1, the cancer was treatable.

135137532Doctors decided to treat with radiation. Lee underwent 30 sessions of radiation — that is, he received radiation once a day for a month. To facilitate his treatment, doctors took a mold of his face and made a clear plastic mask, which is used to bolt the head to the table and keep it still so doctors can accurately fire the radiation.

Following surgery and radiation treatment, Lee had follow-up checks for five years.

He has now been in remission for approximately 13 years.

Lee and Vitals Editor Vivian Gomez

Lee and Vitals editor Vivian Gomez

If you find a lump anywhere in your body, don’t take any chances: Go to your doctor immediately. If you do not have health insurance, look for free or low-cost clinics. Click here to look up locations by ZIP code. Look to see if you qualify for emergency Medicaid, Medicaid, or free or low-cost healthcare coverage. And click here to learn about health insurance and financial assistance for the cancer patients.

Ask your doctor to show you how and where to check for lumps, be aware of your body and get checkups at least once a year, if possible.