Commentary: How I’m still alive to talk about surviving cancer


The most astounding part of my cancer story might be that I’m still alive to tell it.

For nearly 10 years, doctors misdiagnosed my persistent jaw pain and trismus as temporomandibular joint dysfunction, or TMJ. Nerve damage to the side of my face was deemed a pinched nerve. Sadly, I believed the doctors and learned to live with the pain. That is, until I woke up one evening with such excruciating, stabbing pain in my face that I finally became my own advocate.

An immediate appointment with a neurologist led to an MRI and subsequent biopsy. The results came back quickly and were as severe as my physical discomfort: I had Stage IV adenoid cystic carcinoma, an extremely rare head and neck cancer that affects roughly 1,600 people in the U.S. each year.

With my shocking diagnosis, I received a rapid education in the realities of my cancer. The slow-growing, plum-sized tumor completely invaded my maxillary sinus and everything in its way. It was advanced. It was inoperable. Traditional radiation and chemotherapy had proven ineffective in similar cases. Surgery was not an option.

WE SAY…: Read the latest opinions from the Statesman’s editorial board.

Although my type of inoperable tumor was rare, my situation was not. Each year, countless Americans are diagnosed with cancer and given poor prognosis for survival. Traditional radiation therapy can destroy crucial, surrounding structures. Resulting side effects can be devastating. Blindness, deafness, inability to swallow and secondary cancers are a few. Not to mention the long term costs associated with these side effects which further burden both patients and insurers.

I am not the first patient to feel sheer terror upon learning that I have Stage IV cancer. But I hope that I am one of a growing number who – with access to the most appropriate and effective treatment for my diagnosis – will survive, thanks to a treatment option not routinely covered by major insurers.

My diagnosis, as grim as it was, came with a single ray of hope. My faith was strengthened and I was led to MD Anderson Cancer Center, where my medical team explained that proton therapy had offered limited success in treating my type of rare cancer. Though it might not cure me, it would hopefully shrink the tumor enough so I could survive and live a more comfortable life — God willing.

Though proton radiation can target and treat some inoperable tumors like mine, it has also been successful treating other head and neck cancers, prostate cancer, certain breast cancers and childhood cancers. It is noninvasive and completely painless. While conventional radiation functions like a bullet – delivering high-velocity energy that damages the tumor and anything in its path – protons release their energy when they reach the tumor itself and damage only DNA inside the tumor while sparing the surrounding healthy tissues.

Under the expert care of my physicians at MD Anderson — and thanks to our employers’ self-funded insurance policy — I began proton treatment without delay. Miraculously, today I am cancer free. Proton therapy killed a cancer that should have killed me. A few residual-yet-bearable side effects are a small price to pay for survival.

BE THE FIRST TO KNOW: When big news breaks, we send Breaking News emails. Click to sign up.

Though my experience was filled with hope, countless other patients’ stories are filled with insurance denials and barriers as a result of limited insurance coverage for proton therapy — because insurers don’t deem it a “medical necessity.” Semantics are being used at the patients’ expense.

My story could have ended much differently. I am alive today to tell my story and advocate for others thanks to the quality care I received and lots of prayers. Without insurance coverage for my treatment, there’s no telling the physical, emotional and financial burdens my family could have faced.

No one’s story should come to an end because a proven, FDA-approved treatment was denied by insurers. I hope my story will help inspire health insurance companies and lawmakers to expand proton therapy coverage when it’s the best treatment option for cancer patients who may have no other options for survival. Lives depend on it. Mine did.

McBurney is a cancer survivor from Lakeway and patient advocate for the Alliance for Proton Therapy Access.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Opinion: Trump should condemn racists and alt-left

Dear Mr. President, After your initial remarks addressing the tragedy that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, I wrote that you were correct. I agreed with you, and honest scrutiny of the facts of what occurred there that day bear out, that bigotry and violence were on display on “many sides.” But this effort to soothe and unify the...
Commentary: A second special session would stir up a million teachers
Commentary: A second special session would stir up a million teachers

The 85th Texas Legislature just completed a tumultuous special session, tasked by Gov. Greg Abbott to tackle 20 subjects not addressed to his liking during the regular session. The special session was an engineered opportunity for a legislative bonus round, necessitated after critical sunset legislation affecting medical licensure did not pass in May...
Commentary: Why the faith community’s silence on racism is deafening
Commentary: Why the faith community’s silence on racism is deafening

In April 1963, I was a 10-year-old boy living in my hometown of Birmingham, Ala. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been arrested and was in the Birmingham jail after participating in a march against racism and racial segregation. I vaguely remember my father, who was also a preacher and King’s friend and college mate, speaking with other African-American...
Letters to the editor

Re: Aug. 16 commentary, “Phillips: Is Patrick lieutenant governor or viceroy? Let voters decide.” Viewpoints writer Alberta Phillips observes that Texans are not people ruled by a viceroy. I don’t think the lieutenant governor and the governor ever got that memo. They are royalty who fabricate stories. Dan Patrick once said, &ldquo...
David Brooks: What moderates believe
David Brooks: What moderates believe

Donald Trump is not the answer to this nation’s problems, so the great questions of the moment are: If not Trump, what? What does the reaction to Trump look like? For some people, the warriors of the populist right must be replaced by warriors of the populist left. For these people, Trump has revealed an ugly authoritarian tendency in American...
More Stories