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Getting Back In The Game

May 3, 2023, 14:44 PM by Good Health digital edition

coach with two boys

When David Darga needed to calm his nerves during his daily 20-minute radiation therapy sessions, he turned to something familiar: the four quarters of a football game. As a local high school football referee and the father of 3 grown sons who spent years playing the sport, he understood that the right mindset could mean the difference between victory and defeat. David viewed the completion of his treatments in the same way, with the ultimate goal of beating his tonsil cancer. “I’ve been a referee for 14 years and it’s one of the most fun things I do in my life,” David shares. “Being out there on the field, it is definitely mental. So I’d even sing the national anthem in my mind at the start of each session.” Ridley-Tree’s radiation therapists encouraged David’s gridiron approach by lighting the room blue, playing his favorite music and counting down each “quarter” and “halftime” for him until it was “game over,” session ended. The entire Radiation Oncology Department, from those at the front desk to staff members who guided him through his treatment, became his cheerleaders. These people and their teamwork made treatment manageable, according to David. “It was difficult, but with the support of my team, I won.” 

The 59-year old’s season of managing cancer began in the spring of 2022 when he felt an unusual lump in his neck. He ignored it for a few weeks until his annual visit with Sansum Clinic dermatologist Meredith Perrin, MD, FAAD. Dr. Perrin closely examined his lymph nodes, which is her standard practice for patients with a history of melanoma. She noticed one node in his neck was especially large. “I could tell she was really concerned about it, and she was the one that really spearheaded the effort to get me the proper care,” remembers David. He then saw family medicine physician Stanley McLain, MD who recommended an exam with an ENT specialist. It was Ashley Dunn, MD who pointed up the asymmetry of David’s tonsils, and a biopsy confirmed David had HPV-associated squamous cell carcinoma. While this was devastating news, David was relieved the lump was finally addressed. Many patients can often miss signs of tonsil cancer like difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, mouth sores that won’t heal, neck swelling and pain, jaw stiffness, blood in your saliva, earache or a feeling that something is caught in your throat. Having tonsils removed as a child or adult does not eliminate the risk for tonsil cancer, since the disease can still form in the tissue left behind.

David’s cancer treatment journey began with Ridley-Tree Cancer Center radiation oncologist George Cheng, MD, PhD who in the first appointment eased many of the worries he and his wife, Celeste had. “Dr. Cheng spent an hour with us so we could understand the cancer. He was excellent, thorough, probably the best doctor I have ever had. He got the ball rolling right away,” explains David. While some tonsil cancer patients undergo surgery, Dr. Cheng and medical oncologist and hematologist Mukul Gupta, MD recommended radiation therapy and concurrent chemotherapy for the best chance to eliminate the cancer. They told David that his cancer could be treated successfully, and that the prognosis is often very good, especially if it is caught in its earliest stages.

patient and his wife

While David felt hopeful that his treatment plan would do its job, he needed support managing his sore throat and the dry mouth he experienced, which made eating and talking quite difficult. Oncology dietitian nutritionist Sarah Washburn, MS, RDN, CSO frequently saw David during his infusions at Ridley-Tree to check on his side effects and well-being. She reviewed his lab results, advised him on how to get optimal nutrition, assessed his likes and dislikes, and suggested foods and recipes he might enjoy. For his dry mouth, David was referred for free acupuncture sessions, and he was impressed with how relaxing the treatments were, and how they restarted the process of saliva returning to his mouth.

In 2022, David was overweight, had prediabetes and high blood pressure, and did not exercise frequently. Inspired by Dr. Cheng and Sarah’s expertise in guiding patients to optimize their metabolisms through healthy whole foods and lifestyle changes, he went on the offensive, little by little, to reverse his metabolic dysfunction. He traded soda for water, started walking or biking daily, and became more conscious about the food he ate daily. The silver lining of a tough treatment course was how after it, David was on a healthier path than before his diagnosis toward a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and other health conditions. He arrived on the other side no longer pre-diabetic or needing blood pressure medication; and most importantly, three months after his last radiation therapy session, his PET scan showed no sign of cancer. “I got quite an education and learned a lot from Dr. Cheng and Sarah. I was forced to lose the weight, but now that it happened, I am trying to be really careful to stay here,” David admits.

The true MVP, according to David, was his wife, Celeste, whose caregiving he says was one of the biggest reasons he made it to recovery. “Sometimes I would be frustrated with her for pushing me, but her toughness helped me. You need someone in your corner and that was her,” he says. The return to working at his family’s company, South Coast Realty which he runs with his mother and brother, brought David great joy, along with feeling well enough to referee a few games during the fall football season. Cancer failed to rob him of visualizing a future with his family, or enjoying simple pleasures like once again drinking a warm cup of coffee, or training his puppy, Violet, to become a guide dog. “I have learned to live in the moment, to not put aside things you need to do in life. I appreciate the small things a little more than before.”

black lab eating a bone

Looking back on his time at Ridley-Tree, David is grateful for the excellent care he received, and he greatly appreciates how those greeting him knew his name and preferences, and how his care team members were always familiar with the daily medical ups and downs of his treatment. “The staff was amazing, every one of them,” remarks David.

As the leading supporter of Ridley-Tree Cancer Center, the Cancer Foundation of Santa Barbara funds the Oncology Nutrition Program and acupuncture, as well as providing comprehensive diagnostic, treatment, prevention and research programs and cutting-edge technology which allows cancer patients to receive the highest level of care without leaving Santa Barbara.

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