Survivor Since: October 2009

Diagnosis: Head and Neck Cancer (Adenosquamous Carcinoma)

Missouri Cancer Care Team:
Chemotherapy Care Team:

  • Amy Boyle, RN
  • Danielle Kleithermes, RN
  • Denise Huff, RN
  • Erin Swift, RN
  • Johanna Joes, RN
  • Susan Small, RN
  • Mung Chin, RN

Treatment: Radiation Therapy

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Lisa Meyer has some advice for anyone going through cancer: Forgive people for asking stupid questions, and forgive yourself because you probably asked stupid questions too, before your diagnosis.

“Do you smoke? Do you eat organic?” were some of the questions she fielded when others found out about her cancer diagnosis.

“Healthy people also get sick, dammit,” Lisa says in her no-nonsense way, spirited laughter and a deep perspective on life pervading the conversation about her cancer journey. “It does not mean we are above people who do not take care of themselves. Everyone is on notice. Tomorrow is not a promise.”

Lisa was one of those “healthy” people. At the time of her diagnosis, she was in her early 40s, and life was good.

A biopsy revealed a rare head and neck cancer. Her friend Julia, who is also a physician, was one of the first people she called.

“I said, what do I do? I don’t know anyone in Columbia, should I go to St. Louis?” Lisa remembers asking.

“I was super happy. Feeling healthy and strong,” she says.

A health enthusiast since she was a teenager – she started teaching aerobics at the YMCA at age 16 – Lisa was running in the Roots N Blues N BBQ half-marathon in Columbia in the fall of 2009 when she says she didn’t feel right.

“It was a God thing,” she says about the intuition to see her doctor. “Something said, ‘even though you just had your annual physical, you need to go see the doctor.’”

She didn’t fully listen, until a couple of weeks later, she woke up in the middle of the night with the same feeling. Having relocated a short time before to Columbia, Lisa had yet to find a local primary doctor, so she called her primary physician in St. Louis who got her in that same day.

Checking in with her network of colleagues, Julia called back and told Lisa she needed to see Dr. Mark Vellek at Missouri Cancer Associates. Through Dr. Vellek’s compassion, caring, sincerity and intellect, Lisa found the support she needed.

“Dr. Vellek is very gifted,” she says. “He has an incredible work ethic and is authentic – deeply caring about his patients.”

As she began her treatment under Dr. Vellek’s care at Missouri Cancer Associates, Lisa’s Type-A personality kicked in and she readied herself with questions and a plan to keep control. One of the lessons that cancer quickly taught her, however, was that perfectionism (or, as some of her friends would say, the Virgo in her) wasn’t going to be part of the picture.

“I was proactive and got in with the doctors, showing up with notepad in hand, but on the downside, I had high expectations about how I was going to handle treatment,” she says.

“It was a major humbling point. I knew radiation was going to be really hard, but it knocked me on my ass. I had to fight psychologically and physically to keep myself out of the hospital.”

Thirty hits of radiation to the face left Lisa in more pain than she could ever imagine.

“Take your worst sore throat and multiply it by 20,” she explains. “It was so hard to swallow.”

Having witnessed close family members suffer from addiction, she fought the need for morphine drops prescribed for the pain.

“Dr. Vellek had to be tough at times,” she says. “I was not taking the meds like I was supposed to, and he told me with intense firmness and told me he was not concerned about me developing a problem, he was just trying to keep me out of the hospital and alive.”

For nearly six months, Lisa endured the radiation and pain, loss of taste and fatigue.

When the treatment was over, she soon learned that the cancer journey doesn’t end with a good prognosis. A new part of her journey of was beginning, with a mix of emotions – fear and anxiety over the cancer returning, relief that it is over, and survivor’s guilt.

“I was having a hard time with both – the fear of bad news after one of my 3-month scans and blood work – which is fear of remission and then afterward feeling wonderful and grateful that my test results were good – then I would find myself feeling guilty that other people I knew didn’t get to hear good news – survivor’s guilt,” she shares.

A counselor urged her to be compassionate with herself. She felt befuddled, until she found insight in Mark 12: 28-29:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asks him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

The most important one, answered Jesus, is this: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.

Lisa says it took time, a lot of journaling and thinking to understand the lesson. Then, the song “The Greatest Love of All,” came to mind. She discovered that songwriters Michael Masser and Linda Creed wrote the lyrics when Linda was recovering from breast cancer, nine years before cancer took Linda’s life – in 1986, the same year Whitney Houston took the song to #1 on the charts.

Lisa says she identifies with the lines:

“I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I’ll live as I believe
No matter what they take away from me
They can’t take away my dignity.”

Today, seven years after her diagnosis and living more boldly than ever, Lisa says that cancer has taught her that the more you learn to love and care for yourself, the more love you have to give to others – to let go of any type of guilt or shame you may be carrying and embrace compassion, as her counselor had urged her to do.

Showing her feisty spirit, she says she has also learned to separate the wheat from the chaff.

“I have no room for the negative,” she says. “Zero tolerance for negativity and gossip.”

She’s adopted a healthy ability to say “no” and establish boundaries with others in her life, and she says she feels the vibration of the beauty of life like never before.

“I don’t mean to say that every day is a cake walk,” she says. “But nothing is quite as grounding as fighting for your life. I still have storms and rainy days on this human journey, but I’m still here for a reason, a purpose.”

She still sees Dr. Vellek on her check-ups at Missouri Cancer Associates. “I’m not quite ready to kick him to the curb yet,” she jokes.

Forgive others. Love yourself. And fight like hell for the life you are meant to live.

Risk Factors: Signs and symptoms of metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary include a lump or pain in the neck or throat. Check with your doctor if you have a lump or pain in your neck or throat that doesn’t go away. These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. Other conditions may cause the same signs and symptoms.