B. Mark Wilson

Ringing the bell.

Head and Neck Cancer Patient Stories, Clinical-Trials Patient Stories

Mark Wilson

Mark's son, Ben, shows his support by wearing his "Team Wilson" shirt to a check-up.

On May 6, 2014, B. Mark Wilson of Smyrna, Del., made a chance visit to Fox Chase Cancer Center. The 51-year-old came to accompany his father, George, for a follow-up visit. The elder Wilson had been treated for kidney cancer two years earlier. Mark, who had just been diagnosed with stage IV throat cancer, was just days away from his own surgery, and brought along his medical paperwork. “I was hoping for a second opinion,” he admitted. “Little did I know Fox Chase has a Rapid Access Program, which meant I could be seen immediately. And as a result, my treatment plan changed dramatically.”

The father’s story

When George Wilson was diagnosed with advanced stage IV kidney cancer in 2012, his family first sought treatment in their home state of Delaware. “We couldn’t find a surgeon who was comfortable performing the surgery on my dad because he is a very large man,” shared Mark. Eventually George was referred to Fox Chase urologic surgeon Rosalia Viterbo, MD. “Dr. Viterbo explained that although she was able to remove the tumor, it had grown into his fat, so she could not achieve clear margins,” Mark explained. George was offered the opportunity to enroll in a clinical trial at Fox Chase with additional therapy to reduce the risk of recurrence. After completing the treatment, George’s PET scan was clear. “Dad was cancer-free!” exclaimed Mark.

Fast forward to 2014

In spring 2014, Mark was busy running the family business, Legacy Farms, when he was diagnosed with stage IV tonsil cancer. “I was really scared – I didn’t think I had a chance,” Mark admitted. He met with a surgeon at a large hospital in Delaware and was scheduled for a tonsillectomy and either a laryngectomy or tracheostomy, depending on what the surgeon found, on May 9. The effects of partial laryngectomy can dramatically impact the quality of life – including losing the ability to speak naturally.

“With my business, I couldn’t imagine losing my voice but didn’t see any other option,” Mark said. “Taking my dad to Fox Chase was the perfect opportunity to get a second opinion.”

When Colleen Tetzlaff, PA, entered the exam room, Mark waited patiently before jumping in and asking her to feel the bump on his neck. After a brief exam, she told Mark, “Today is your lucky day. One of the country’s top head and neck surgeons is on the Fox Chase faculty and is in the house today.”

Within four hours, Mark saw surgeon John A. Ridge, MD, FACS, along with members of the head and neck cancer team – radiation oncologist Thomas Galloway, MD, medical oncologist Ranee Mehra, MD, and nurse practitioner Kristen Kreamer, CRNP.

A life-saving clinical trial

Dr. Galloway and Mark Wilson

Dr. Thomas Galloway (left), radiation oncologist, sees Mark regularly for check-ups.

After reviewing Mark’s medical records and performing an exam, Dr. Ridge suggested that Mark enroll in a clinical trial to determine whether substitution of a chemotherapy agent, cisplatin, with a protein antibody, cetuximab, will result in comparable 5-year overall survival. He explained that surgery would be the last resort. Mark had a T3 tumor, meaning it was greater than 4 centimeters in dimension (3 x 8 cm.).

“I believe we can successfully treat you without surgery,” said Dr. Ridge. Mark enrolled in the study in June (RTOG 1016 - A Phase III Trial of Radiotherapy Plus Cetuximab Versus Chemoradiotherapy in HPV-Associated Oropharynx Cancer). Before starting treatment, Mark also met with a physical therapist, Jeannie Kozempel, who worked with him through the course of treatment.

“My medical oncologist, Dr. Mehra, is so thoughtful,” added Mark, who was very impressed that she called him at home one evening to address his pain issues. “And Dr. Galloway and his resident spent so much time explaining each part of my treatment in easy-to-understand terminology. The doctors explained every possible side effect so I was prepared. Their approach was comprehensive, which made me feel more confident in their care.”

“The clinical trial worked so well for me,” shared Mark. “I believe it saved my life.” After completing the trial in August 2014, Mark will begin a course of follow-up tests.

Team Wilson

A group of family and friends accompanied Mark to his last radiation treatment where he "rang the bell" and everyone sang along.

Fox Chase has a long-standing tradition of ringing the bell in the radiation department to mark the end of treatment. When it was time for Mark to ring the bell, about 30 of his closest friends and family showed up, complete with a guitar, to sing the lyrics to Boondocks by Little Big Town (see video). "It was a very emotional moment for me," shared Mark, who was grateful for the love and support of his family.

Moving beyond cancer

Although Mark was disappointed to miss most of the summer, he feels grateful for Fox Chase. “If I hadn’t come to a center like Fox Chase, I wouldn’t have had access to the treatment I received. Surgery would have been my first and only choice.”

Once treatment is behind him, Mark looks forward to resuming his work life, along with his leisure activities—riding his Harley Davidson and traveling to tropical destinations with his girlfriend, Lorie. “Lorie, along with my family, have been an incredible support to me through this difficult time,” he said. “I don’t think I would have made it through without them.”