Karmanos Head and Neck Oncology experts restore life and beauty to tonsil cancer survivor's journey

Finding beauty in the journey: How Karmanos head and neck oncology experts helped a tonsil cancer survivor gain her life back

“I think Karmanos doctors did an amazing job of helping me navigate it.”

For Elizabeth Harpster, like any other cancer survivor, hearing the words, ‘You have cancer,’ was the beginning of navigating treatment, recovery, survival, and thriving.

“I think Karmanos doctors did an amazing job of helping me navigate it,” Harpster said. “They were always just a step ahead and explaining, ‘Elizabeth, next week you might feel like this, and you may not.’ At least I knew what was happening and how to react or not react to what I was experiencing.”

That open and honest communication Harpster described helped her face her diagnosis and treatment with bravery and a positive attitude.

Knowledge gave Elizabeth power to move forward

It all started with symptoms of a sore throat and swollen glands that did not improve over time, leading Harpster to see her physician in December 2019. The antibiotics and Z pack she was prescribed didn’t relieve her symptoms in the long run.

It wasn’t until January 2020, at her son’s snowboarding competition, Harpster remarked to a friend that she needed to go home early. Her fatigue, swollen glands, headache, and sore throat were getting the best of her. Her friend asked to see her neck.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to scare you, but I just want to tell you that my husband had neck cancer caused by HPV. I think you should really get this checked out,’” Harpster recalled.

So, that’s what she did. She saw an otolaryngologist who ordered a CAT scan. This doctor concluded she had thyroid cancer, but the endocrinologist she was referred to said she didn’t. She was then referred to another physician to get her lymph node removed and tested.

“In the meantime, I went to a holistic doctor I had seen on and off throughout my life because I just love holistic doctors,” Harpster explained. “He put me on all these tinctures – ‘just take this little drop of whatever and put it in an herb tea and drink it three times a day.’”

Harpster followed the holistic doctors’ orders until COVID-19 changed life as she and the rest of the world knew it.

“I just sat home for six weeks and played board games with my kids and my husband, and I drank this green tincture tea and slept and ate good food. I felt fabulous! I checked the swelling in my neck every day, and it was going down. I felt fine.”

Harpster resolved that she had just suffered from a case of mono. By May 2020, as Harpster planned to return to everyday life, she got a phone call from the surgeon she had been referred to for her lymph node removal earlier in the year. That call would set her on a journey she was not prepared for.

Harpster saw the surgeon, who encouraged her to have an ultrasound of her neck despite the swelling being gone. She was back to work and her busy travel schedule, but her symptoms of fatigue and not feeling well returned. She got the ultrasound as advised.

“The doctor said, ‘The swelling may have gone down, but the ultrasound tells a different story. You need to have the lymph node removed,’” Harpster said. “So, I went and had it removed, and days later, I learned I had cancer.”

Care and support at Karmanos made the difference

Harpster was referred to Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit, where she was placed under the care of three Head and Neck Oncology Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) members: Ammar Sukari, M.D., medical oncologist and leader of the MDT, Harold Kim, M.D., radiation oncologist, and Jeffrey Hotaling, M.D., FACS, otolaryngologist and surgical oncologist.

“We have a full multidisciplinary team dedicated to treating head and neck cancers and all of the ancillary services needed,” explained Dr. Hotaling. “Our team is attuned to all the intricacies of dealing with cancers in this sensitive and intimate part of the body.”

The Head and Neck Oncology MDT at Karmanos includes:

  • Ear, nose and throat specialists (ENT, otolaryngologists)
  • Maxillofacial prosthodontists
  • Surgical, medical and radiation oncologists
  • Speech and swallow therapists
  • Neuroradiologists
  • Pathologists
  • Interventional radiologists
  • Pharmacists
  • Endocrinologists
  • Dietitians
  • Facial and reconstructive surgeons
  • Social workers
  • Oral oncologists/dentists
  • Genetic counselors

“When Elizabeth’s lymph node was removed, testing revealed she had squamous cell carcinoma,” explained Dr. Hotaling. “Since the diagnosis came from the lymph node, this type of cancer usually originates somewhere in the mouth or throat. When she transferred her care to Karmanos, she had what is known as an ‘unknown primary tumor,’ meaning it was unclear where the tumor originated from that had spread to the lymph node in her neck. We then did a robotic tonsillectomy, and I was able to identify that she had a small tumor in her tonsil.”

Dr. Hotaling learned that Harpster had HPV-associated squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil.

“The type of cancer that Elizabeth had is not particularly common, but the majority of tonsil cancers that we see are related to HPV,” shared Dr. Hotaling.

Harpster said knowing the origin helped establish a clear treatment plan, which included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

“I like to tell patients that we’re a one-stop shop at Karmanos,” described Dr. Hotaling. “You walk in and everything will be taken care of in-house. There’s no need to send a patient to another health system for additional treatment, making things much easier for patients.

“My colleagues, Drs. Sukari, Kim, and I devised a treatment plan with Elizabeth. We all worked closely together and were on the same page throughout her care.”

Harpster said the collaboration and care of her entire team helped to keep her going, and the Karmanos team helped fill in the gaps with the support she needed.

“I sit down with my patients and tell them our goal is to get them back to eating, drinking, talking and living their life. We only want this to be a bump in the road and to get them back to doing what they want. It [cancer] will change their life, but we don't want it to take over their life fully.

“In Elizabeth’s case, we were able to do that. And she's doing awesome,” Dr. Hotaling concluded.

While Harpster has started working full-time again, she is not losing sight of her commitment to inspiring others battling cancer.

“The beauty of this journey is there will be unexpected joy along the way if you battle with courage and positivity,” Harpster said. “That’s the hope and positivity I want to share by telling my story. I hope to make a difference in someone else’s journey.”

Join Karmanos Cancer Institute’s Head and Neck MDT members at the Head and Neck Symposium. The event will feature presentations on novel treatment approaches Karmanos specialists are implementing in their clinic along with clinical trials and recent research they are conducting. The symposium takes place on Saturday, October 21 at the Auburn Hills Marriot in Pontiac, Michigan. This activity is approved for up to 5.25 AMA PRA Category I Credits™. More information can be found at karmanos.org/headandnecksymposium

Click here to learn more about the Head and Neck Oncology MDT at Karmanos.