Business owner has two-time cancer victory after losing his brother to cancer

"I believe in Karmanos’ system, and the results speak for themselves.”

Losing a loved one to cancer can affect your perspective on life. Dan Wega’s story is one of survival, determination and friendship, despite his loss and cancer diagnoses. He exemplifies the power of a “don’t-quit” attitude while operating a family business in Royal Oak.

Wega returned to Michigan in the spring of 2015 to be with his older brother who was battling liver cancer. Shortly after his brother passed, Wega learned he had HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, also known as throat cancer.

Wega had a sore throat for almost a year before his first diagnosis. He was evaluated by multiple health care providers and was prescribed antibiotics and other medications without improvement. When none of that worked, he saw an ear, nose and throat specialist. Surgery was planned for what the specialist thought was a deviated septum. However, one week before his scheduled surgery, Wega discovered a lump in his neck.

Based on a friend’s advice, he decided to go to the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. Wega said he knew right away that Karmanos was the place to be.

“I met Dr. Yoo, and I appreciated his honesty and straightforwardness,” said Wega. “I told him, ‘I don’t want you to candy coat anything. I just want to know what it’s going to take, what my chances of survival are and how we are going to go about this.’”

Cancer care often requires a team of specialists, also known as a multidisciplinary team (MDT) at Karmanos. This was the case when it came to Wega’s treatment for oropharyngeal cancer. Along with surgical oncologist George Yoo, M.D., FACS, Wega’s team of physicians included medical oncologist Ammar Sukari, M.D. and radiation oncologist Harold Kim, M.D. ­­— all three are members of the Head and Neck Oncology Multidisciplinary Team. Together, Drs. Sukari, Yoo and Kim, along with specialized MDT members, created an individualized treatment plan for Wega consisting of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

“Altogether, I went through 35 rounds of radiation and 3 rounds of chemotherapy,” Wega said.

HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer mostly affects men ages 45-65. The primary symptom is a lump or mass in the neck. Additionally, some patients may experience difficulty swallowing and may have vocal hoarseness or pain in the ear. 

“This kind of cancer is very curable,” said Dr. Sukari, leader of the Head and Neck Oncology Multidisciplinary Team. “The cure rate is 80 percent to 95 percent.” 

Wega had another diagnosis two years after achieving a complete response to oropharyngeal cancer treatment. During a routine follow-up in 2017, imaging showed small nodules on his lungs. A biopsy revealed metastatic oropharyngeal cancer, suggesting that his throat cancer had returned.

Dr. Sukari then offered Wega a new type of therapy that he was eligible for. It was an immunotherapy combination available through a Phase-I clinical trial. Within a few months of starting the treatment, his lung metastases resolved. Wega remained on the clinical trial for almost two years. His treatment was then discontinued because he no longer had evidence of cancer.

“Mr. Wega’s response to the treatment was a miracle. It is unusual to be able to achieve durable and complete response for stage 4 head and neck cancer,” explained Dr. Sukari.

Wega says the immunotherapy clinical trial and radiation treatments he underwent were challenging. Still, he is thankful for the care he received at Karmanos. Wega has now been cancer free for over three years.

“The team at Karmanos saved my life twice,” said Wega. “The whole staff at Karmanos is amazing, from the doctors to the nurses, to the clinic staff. I don’t think I would be alive, truthfully – I don’t think I would have had the same result elsewhere. I believe in Karmanos’ system, and the results speak for themselves.”

Wega’s story is different from other patients treated for HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, especially since he developed metastatic lung cancer following his initial treatment. 

“What’s unique about Dan is that he unfortunately relapsed,” explained Dr. Sukari. “Even though the chances for him to be cured of the oropharyngeal cancer were high, he did fall into a small portion of patients with this kind of cancer who may relapse after receiving the standard therapy.

“He has a very encouraging story. It’s a success story of a ‘don’t-quit’ attitude, science and new therapies. Dan’s story speaks to the advancement of medicine in recent years.”

It also speaks to the power of an experienced, caring medical team working in partnership with patients to give them their best chance to survive and thrive.

“Dan is raising his family, working full time and his business is booming,” said Dr. Sukari. “He comes to see us every three months for his scans. We keep giving him the good news and I hope to keep it that way.”

Wega sends a special thanks to each member of the Karmanos team that continues to provide him care and support.

“I don’t want to be a victim of the disease. I don’t let it take over or control me at all. I think my attitude has been a big help for me and the attitudes of the doctors and nurses at Karmanos. They are so supportive, and for what I’ve been through, overall, it’s been a pleasant experience,” concluded Wega.

Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute offers 15 multidisciplinary teams of cancer specialists who focus on fighting the cancer their patients are diagnosed with. Wega is one of 12,000 new patients who experience such specialized care each year. The multidisciplinary teams consist of specialists in diagnostics, medical and surgical oncology, radiation oncology, pathology, radiology, oncology nursing, supportive care and genetics counseling, when appropriate. Click here to learn more about Karmanos’ multidisciplinary teams or call 1-800-KARMANOS.