City of Hope Patient Julia Walker on Surviving and Thriving After Throat Cancer
September 22, 2017 | by Samantha Bonar
Finding out she had cancer of the tonsil and soft palate was the last thing Julia Walker, 60, expected two years ago.
She had just relocated to Los Angeles after a lifetime of living in New York City and was focused on her career as a talent manager and her new California lifestyle. She had noticed a bit of swelling on her neck, but attributed it to strep throat and forgot about it.
Then, “A couple of months later, I looked in the mirror and there was a tumor on my neck,” she said.
At first, Walker was filled with a kind of incredulous disbelief.
“I never thought about it happening to me,” she said. “Plus, it was this HPV-related localized cancer. I didn’t even know I had HPV in my body. It was just all very shocking and foreign.”
Walker connected with a friend at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston who told Walker she should head to City of Hope. Physicians there confirmed her stage 4 diagnosis in December 2015. Walker initially consulted with a surgeon, then saw radiation oncologist Sagus Sampath, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology.
“From a technical perspective, if you know what you’re doing, it’s a very straightforward treatment [for this type of tumor],” Sampath said. The protocol was 35 daily radiation treatments, five days a week for seven weeks, along with three chemotherapy infusions.
“She was thinking about surgery, and she could have gone either way,” Sampath added. “But she was very conscious of the fact that the answer to everything isn’t always the knife. She evaluated both options and she chose the nonsurgical route and I think she made the right decision. The fact that she consciously made this decision is a testament to her confidence in me and her confidence in herself, and that’s what carried her through.”
That doesn’t mean the treatment wasn’t grueling.
“Basically, they drop an atomic bomb on your neck,” Walker said. “Things are fine for about two and a half weeks, and then you slam into a wall.
“Radiation is tough. It’s hard,” she continued. “The fatigue stopped me in my tracks. Then I got to the point where I could not eat, drink, pee or poop.” Walker said that for a healthy “yoga nut” like herself, the loss of vitality was overwhelming. Walker credits her medical team, including physicians, nurses, radiation technicians and speech pathologists for helping her through the ordeal. “Their expertise and encouragement was right on target.”
She said that her lowest point came during the fifth week of treatment. But then, “I said to myself, ‘I can do better. I’m going to try harder. I’m going to drink more water.’ I just kind of pulled it together. But when I got to a place where I couldn’t manage on my own, I just turned it all over to my friends and family. My biggest lesson was learning to ask for help and to be dependent on others when necessary."
Twelve weeks after finishing treatment, PET and MRI scans showed no trace of cancer.
However, she still has lingering after-effects from the treatment. Radiation to the neck and throat can affect muscles, salivary glands and tastebuds. “It took a good year for me to recover my saliva and taste. Even to this day, my appetite is affected,” Walker said. “But all of that is inconsequential to the fact that I am healthy and alive. I am grateful that I had access to great medical care.”
Walker says her journey was difficult, but not without its benefits.
“You don’t go through this experience and stay the same,” she said. “I’m a way stronger person, I feel like I accomplished something. Once you have heard the words “You have cancer,” and then you beat it, you no longer have fear.”
Still, Walker admits that just when she finished treatment, “the fear came roaring forth like an angry lion.” She says at that point, she chose to begin seeing a psychotherapist. However, during the treatment process, “It worked for me to compartmentalize my fear in a place where I could ignore it.”
Now, she said, “I feel really great. I feel proud. If I had to allow cancer in my life in order to take this quantum leap forward, then so be it. I think that the years that I have left on this earth are going to be more fulfilling than they would have had I not experienced cancer. I appreciate everything more and I’ve been having a damn good time.”
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