Feel a Neck Lump? See Your Doctor

Terminal cancer patient releases his first public service announcement (PSA) aimed at encouraging faster diagnosis of head and neck cancer.

It was November 25th, 2015, the day before Thanksgiving and I was working from home. After responding to some emails that morning, I got ready and tiptoed gingerly up and down the cold white tiles of our bathroom floor, waiting for the shower water to heat up.

In the mirror’s reflection, I suddenly noticed something different about the right side of my neck. Placing my hand there, I could feel a solid lump just under my jawline that was about 3 centimeters in diameter (see Figure 1). The left side of my neck appeared normal.

The bulge wasn’t there the day before, or I would have felt it while shaving. It was a solid mass and wasn’t sore at all to the touch. It didn’t feel warm and seemed tethered to its location.

Putting my shower on hold, I threw my sweatpants and t-shirt back on and hurried back to my computer to do a quick search on the medical literature website PubMed from the U.S. National Library of Medicine. I quickly came across one medical journal article that contained a startling statistic: More than 75% of lateral (side) neck masses in patients older than 40 years are caused by malignant tumors.

The same article continued with guidance that “in the absence of overt signs of infection, a lateral neck mass is metastatic squamous cell carcinoma or lymphoma until proved otherwise.” The results made me nervous enough to reach for the phone and call our family physician for an appointment that day.

The most common cause for enlargement of the lymph nodes is infection or inflammation. However, such lymph nodes are often swollen, tender, and mobile. They can also exhibit abnormal redness of the surrounding skin and feel warm to the touch. Other than being swollen, my enlarged lymph node didn’t have any of these other symptoms.

My physician prescribed an antibiotic and instructed me to follow up with an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialist if the lymph node didn’t decrease in size or got worse after the weekend. Unfortunately, there was no change in the size of my lymph node and subsequent testing confirmed the diagnosis of advanced oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC).

I’m thankful that my physician gave me a short course of antibiotic treatment. An article from the American Family Physician suggests a 2-week trial of antibiotics and then referring the patient for a biopsy if no resolution. However, every delay of 1 week in the referral of an OPSCC patient to secondary care correlates with a more advanced cancer stage at presentation and is associated with poorer survival. Specifically, researchers estimate that for every 1 week of delay in referral, the stage of presentation will progress by 0.045 of ‘a stage’.

Call to action: Men and women over the age of 40 who discover a suspicious lump or mass on either side of their neck shouldn’t delay in seeking medical attention. Many patients should also avoid being treated by courses of antibiotics for weeks or months, as this causes a delay in referral to secondary care, generally to an ENT specialist. Don’t delay — get a suspicious neck lump checked out today!

Disclaimer: Michael Becker is not a doctor and does not have formal medical training. His commentary should not be construed as recommendations, endorsements, or medical advice.

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Figure 1: Self-portrait showing the neck mass (blue side) is visible


Up to Eleven

Late last month, I experienced severe pain in my left hip/buttock that warranted a trip to the urgent care facility at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). With random movement, a sharp, electric-like pain radiated down my left leg. It was like nothing I’ve experienced before. Lying down on my right side made the pain better, but sitting or climbing stairs was unbearable.

During my stay at urgent care, an x-ray of my pelvis showed no evidence of fracture. There was also no indication that cancer had spread to that area, which was naturally my initial concern.

While waiting to see the doctor, I was given a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) called ketorolac via intravenous infusion to help address the pain. It worked so well that I was later released. The pain was attributed to an inflammatory condition, possibly bursitis according to the discharge papers.

Since the cancer wasn’t responsible for my pain, I was instructed to follow up with a local orthopedist for further evaluation and treatment. In the meantime, I found it unusual that oral NSAIDs and even narcotics like oxycodone failed to address my growing pain.

An x-ray of my spine was taken by the orthopedist, which also came back normal. I was prescribed physical therapy for 4-6 weeks and a steroid regimen to help address inflammation that was possibly putting pressure on my sciatic nerve. I required a walking cane, as it felt like my left leg was going to collapse every time I experienced a bolt of pain.

Completing the steroid regimen and two weeks of physical therapy, I was feeling only marginally better. During a follow-up appointment with my orthopedist, I received a steroid injection directly into the left sacroiliac (SI) joint region. I was told pain relief could take a few days, for which I anxiously awaited.

At this point, I was due for a periodic CT scan of my chest, abdomen, and pelvis at MSKCC. It would reveal how cancer responded to the recent stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) directed to three areas—a lesion in each lung and also my spleen. It was hoped that the SBRT would decrease the size of targeted tumors in the lungs enough to alleviate a nagging cough that I developed.

Given the unique pain I was experiencing, thoughts of cancer progression still swirled in my mind. Bone is the third most common site for the spread of cancer, with half or more of patients diagnosed with cancer experiencing bone pain.

Coincidentally, I became quite familiar with pain arising from metastatic bone disease (MBD) during my tenure as CEO of Cytogen Corporation. The company had developed and commercialized Quadramet®—an injectable radiopharmaceutical used to treat bone pain associated with cancer.

Pain from MBD results from bone destruction and fragility. A pain scale measures a persons pain intensity based on self-report, with pain levels between 0 (pain-free) and 10 (pain that makes you pass out). Since late August, my daily pain went from a low of 5 at rest up to 11 with movement (“Up to eleven” coined in the 1984 movie This Is Spinal Tap).

Since I was scheduled to travel to MSKCC for the CT scan, I asked my treatment team if an MRI of my spine made sense to plan for that same day. I couldn’t help but think the severe pain was caused by cancer progression to bone. They agreed, and both imaging procedures were scheduled for September 19, 2018.

Meanwhile, after completing oral steroids, two weeks of physical therapy, a steroid injection, and walking with a cane, my resting pain level slightly improved. Regretfully, I second-guessed my request for an MRI of my spine due to the modest pain improvement and canceled that appointment after consulting with my treatment team.

The day of the CT scan, my pain was back to full force. I knew that I couldn’t hold still long enough to complete the CT scan. It took 10 mg of oxycodone to sedate me and alleviate my pain just enough to get through the 10-minute procedure.

Yesterday, Lorie and I reviewed the CT scan results with my oncologist at MSKCC, Dr. David Pfister, and Nicole Leonhart, ANP, RN. My cough disappeared, so I was very confident that the inferior left hilar node decreased in size following SBRT. The radiology report confirmed that it declined from 1.3 cm x 1.3 cm on the prior scan to 0.6 cm x 0.6 cm.

Unfortunately, that was the only good news contained in the CT scan results. While the tumor on my spleen also received radiation, it nearly doubled in size from 4.0 cm x 2.7 cm to 7.4 cm x 5.1 cm. Could this be inflammation following the radiation treatment, or did it genuinely represent tumor growth? No one could be sure based merely on imaging.

Figure 1. Vertebral body

Our hearts sunk as the discussion turned to the suspicious new lesions found on my spine. Specifically, the L5 and T7 vertebral bodies—spool-shaped structures that constitute the weight-bearing portion of a vertebra (see Figure 1). Most spine tumors are metastatic, representing the spreading of cancer from a different part of the body. Unfortunately, metastatic or primary tumors, trauma, and infection are prominent pathologies of L5.

Figure 2: MRI images showing the location of cancer spread to the spine (dark areas near arrows). Click to enlarge.

Correlation of the findings using an MRI was needed. Immediately, I regretted second-guessing my decision to get an MRI done while in town for the CT scan last week. Amazingly, I was able to get an MRI done the same day of my appointment at MSKCC. The results confirmed that cancer had now spread to my T7, L5, T5, and S2 vertebral bodies (see Figure 2).

When cancer spreads to the spine, it can replace your bones or compress your nerves, resulting in compression fractures, pain, and reduced blood supply to the spinal cord. Fortunately, cancer has not yet contacted my spinal cord. Otherwise, I would likely have been admitted for emergency spinal surgery. Spinal cord compression needs to be treated right away to try to prevent permanent damage to the spinal cord.

The good news, if there is any, is that radiation therapy provides excellent relief for painful bone metastases and retreatment is safe and effective. Within a week or so, I will undergo both mapping and radiation treatment for the painful spine metastases. In the majority of patients, radiation therapy can provide substantial pain relief.

Figure 3: Michael Becker’s disease and treatment milestones. Click image to enlarge.

After finishing my third cancer treatment in March 2018 (nine months of combination chemotherapy—carboplatin and paclitaxel), I decided to take my first treatment break after being diagnosed (see Figure 3). As I had hoped, the past six months were precisely what I needed and left me feeling refreshed and reenergized.

Assuming my bone pain is addressed, I’m faced with the option of pursuing novel therapies or merely continuing my treatment hiatus. For example, I have not yet been exposed to cetuximab, a biologic agent that blocks the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and is FDA approved for the treatment of metastatic colorectal cancer, metastatic non-small cell lung cancer, and head and neck cancer. Alone or in combination with an investigational agent, cetuximab could be a viable treatment option that doesn’t negatively impact my quality of life in the same manner as chemotherapy.

As soon as I get past the bone pain issue, I plan on meeting with Dr. Pfister to continue hearing his thoughts on potential next steps that could achieve my goal of maintaining a decent quality of life while still pursuing active treatment. To be continued…

Collecting More Information

Following Tuesday’s news that several of the tumors in my lungs actually increased in size and a new spot appeared on my spleen, Lorie and I headed back to the NIH on Thursday for more tests to help better guide subsequent treatment decisions.

The first test was a CT image of my brain taken Thursday mid-afternoon, which would be used to rule out the spread of cancer to that particular organ. Patients with brain metastases are often excluded from clinical trials due to historically dismal survival and concerns about blood brain barrier drug penetration. Fortunately, we learned the next morning that this test came back negative for cancer progression to the brain.

The second test on Friday was an image-guided biopsy of a single lung nodule to help guide between cancer progression and inflammation as the reason for the increase in size seen on the recent CT scan on the lungs. In my case, a core needle biopsy was performed, which is less invasive than surgical biopsy and doesn’t require general anesthesia.

Early Friday morning, Dr. Elliot Levy, an interventional radiologists at NIH trained in radiology and minimally invasive procedures, met with us first to discuss the procedure. He pulled up a cross sectional image of my lungs, which showed several of the suspicious nodules.

CT scan of my lungs, showing target nodule for biopsy with two lines representing potential needle angles for biopsy. Other nodules within the lungs circled in red, which could be more dangerous to biopsy.

One in particular was located in the pleural cavity – normally a thin membrane that lines the surface of the lungs and the inside of the chest wall outside the lungs. In the bottom of my left lung, however, fluid built up in the pleural cavity where one of the nodules was located. Dr. Levy explained to us how this nodule could be biopsied without puncturing the lung lobe, which can result in a longer hospital stay.

Sometimes, a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) occurs after a lung biopsy.  As a precaution, a chest x-ray is taken after the procedure to check for this before sending the patient home.

After meeting with Dr. Levy, I was escorted back to the biopsy procedure room and placed on my right side on a table. I was consciously sedated, produced by the administration of two medications: a single dose of fentanyl given intravenously that can produce good analgesia for 20-45 minutes, and midazolam, which has a fast-acting, short-lived sedative effect when given intravenously, achieving sedation within one to five minutes and peaking within 30 minutes. The combination produces an altered level of consciousness that still allows a patient to respond to physical stimulation and verbal commands, and to maintain an unassisted airway. Midazolam is a primary choice for conscious sedation because it causes patients to have no recollection of the medical procedure.

Dr. Levy worked out of sight behind me to perform the biopsy, as he went through my back side. I was fairly nervous going into the procedure, but everything went extremely well with absolutely no pain or unexpected events due to the sedation.

After recovery, a subsequent chest x-ray confirmed that the lungs were indeed fine after the biopsy and we left NIH shortly thereafter to head back home to Pennsylvania.

Thumbs up; recovering after biopsy procedure at NIH

The preliminary results from the biopsy should be available early this week. If the biopsy shows ample evidence of immune stimulation, an argument could be made to stay on the current drug and that the “pseudoprogression,” or the initial radiologic appearance of an increase in tumor burden, might actually be inflammation and followed by tumor regression. A remote possibility in my type of cancer, but worth confirming.

Should the biopsy results instead demonstrate increased tumor burden, then we could consider switching to another investigational agent or even chemotherapy to shrink the tumors before proceeding again with one of the immunotherapy clinical trials.

Lorie and Michael Becker in front of cherry blossoms

Determined to stay positive, Lorie and I took advantage of the warm spring day on Thursday to stop outside NIH and snap a picture in front of some cherry blossoms. Unfortunately, snow and cold returned on Friday for the commute home.

We’ll know more this week, so stay tuned…