- Diagnosed with HPV-positive throat cancer.
- Minimally invasive robotic surgery removed cancerous tumor.
Lydia Miner approved her image in the mirror: Vibrant and strong. She cleared her throat and tied a yellow bandana around her neck, covering a fading scar. She donned a T-shirt with the word “CAMP” emblazoned across her chest and headed out. Her shirt might have been more accurate had it read: Trailblazer.
In 2010, Lydia marked a medical milestone. She was the first patient in Washington state to have a cancerous tumor successfully removed by robotic surgery. Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s late Dr. Eduardo Méndez performed the procedure.
Now, she stood on the brink of another breakthrough: She was preparing to sing at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
“I didn’t know if I would ever swallow, eat or talk again, let alone sing,” said Lydia, an environmental consultant from Anchorage, now living in Washington. “Dr. Méndez hit a grand slam for me. All the promises he made about my care, recovery and outcome all came true — and now I am able to eat, talk and I am singing. I will be singing at Carnegie Hall.”
Contrary to the old adage, for Lydia, the road to Carnegie Hall took more than practice.
“It was a partnership,” said Dr. Méndez. “With Lydia, I knew I had a partner in innovation. As a physician, you need a partner when you are trailblazing — where the patient is aware of the risk but knows that I am and will be there for her.”
‘Pill stuck in my throat’
In February of 2010, Lydia said felt she had something “like a vitamin pill stuck in my throat.” It lasted for months. At her hospital in Anchorage, her doctor discovered she had a tumor at the base of her tongue. He diagnosed her with HPV-positive throat cancer. He told her to prepare for seven weeks of intensive chemotherapy and radiation.
Lydia learned that patients with HPV-positive head and neck cancers generally have better outcomes than patients with head and neck cancer not linked to HPV. But the treatment would leave her in pain and might permanently rob her of her voice and sense of taste.
Lydia’s Seattle friends urged her to get a second opinion with oncology specialists at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. They knew that SCCA is the Northwest's leader in head and neck cancer care and is a nationally ranked cancer hospital. Lydia agreed, transferring her records to SCCA for an expert, multi-disciplinary review of her case.
Avoiding harsh side effects
During the team’s review of Lydia’s file, Dr. Méndez, an expert in the surgical treatment of head and neck cancers including minimally invasive TransOral Robotic Surgery, noted the tumor in Lydia’s throat might be surgically removed by a minimally invasive approach. The team agreed this approach could save Miner the harsh side effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
“There is a growing epidemic of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer,” Dr. Méndez noted. “The good news is that if detected early, it is highly treatable.”
Decades ago, oral cancer patients were nearly always male and over 50, heavy smokers or drinkers, or both, Dr. Méndez said. But recently, there has been a hike in HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, a potentially deadly disease often found in the base of the tongue and the tonsils.According to the American Cancer Society, about a quarter of all oral cancers are now HPV-related, and about 25 percent of cases occur in women.
Lydia’s partner, David Steward, recalled his initial reaction to her diagnosis: “Wait, I’m the smoker and the drinker, and she gets cancer? Why not me?”
Outstanding performance in surgery, life
Lydia qualified for a novel treatment with a new robotic instrument — the DaVinci Surgical System recently been approved by the FDA for head and neck surgery. Dr. Méndez conducted the procedure on April 23, 2010. It lasted 44 minutes.
When Dr. Méndez received results from the pathologist, he was astonished. The precision surgery had excised the entire tumor. What’s more, the procedure took less time than he normally spent describing the damage and grueling rehabilitation required after traditional surgery. Not only was the tumor successfully excised, but surgery had revealed that the tumor had not spread to the neck lymph nodes. Lydia would not need any additional treatment.
Miner recovers fast and well
Lydia started singing as a way to prevent scar tissue from forming in her throat. She’d been given a series of vocal exercises by a therapist.
“Why not just sing?” she said. She had sung as a child at church and in choral groups. Singing gave her a sense of peace and belonging. Before long, she auditioned for and earned a spot with the prestigious Seattle Women’s Chorus. Then, she was invited to perform Street Reqium at Carnegie Hall, where she joined choruses worldwide on September 24.
“Not bad for someone who might never have spoken again,” David reflected.
What started as humming a few bars of a tune, for Lydia, has made all the difference in the world.