Man Facing Throat Cancer Makes Goal to See His Son Graduate

In 2016, David Rich decided to keep a secret from his teenage son—he had throat cancer that, if left untreated, would soon kill him. He needed surgery and radiation therapy. And he needed it right away.

In 2016, David Rich decided to keep a secret from his teenage son—he had throat cancer that, if left untreated, would soon kill him. He needed surgery and radiation therapy. And he needed it right away.

Rich determined he would do what medically needed to be done, but he wouldn’t tell 15-year-old Jonathan. There was no need for him to worry; after all, he was only a high school sophomore. Then Rich set a goal for his recovery—to see the boy through the rest of his high school years and be able to drop him off for his first day of college.

On September 1, the 54-year-old dad drove his son to Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, and watched the young man start a new chapter in his life. At the same time, Rich and his wife, Stacey, also started a new chapter—one that wouldn’t feature cancer.

“Just like everyone else, I’m planning for the future,” Rich says. “This coming February it will be three years since the surgery. Well, I’m still here, and I’m very glad to be here.”

The journey from cancer patient to cancer survivor began when Rich, from Ventnor, New Jersey, found a large lump in his throat while shaving. His primary care doctor sent him to a Jefferson-affiliated physician near his home, who took a biopsy—and then referred him to Dr. Adam Luginbuhl, an otolaryngologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

“When I met Dr. Luginbuhl, I felt very confident in making plans for the future,” Rich says.

After another biopsy and a PET scan revealed cancer, Rich was scheduled for immediate surgery. Initially, his doctors planned to perform two separate surgeries—one to remove the cancer from his throat and the other to remove the tumor from his neck. However, when he arrived at the hospital on February 9, 2016, he was told both surgeries would be performed at the same time. After two days under observation in the hospital, he went home to recover.

Rich then began 25 rounds of radiation—interrupted briefly due to a bout with pneumonia and sepsis. During this time, he says he focused on his son, whom he and his wife adopted in 2001.“He never knew that anything was wrong with me the entire time I was sick,” Rich remembers. “He thought I had some minor throat surgery. I made sure that I got up in the morning when he was ready for school and made it look like everything was fine. Then I would go back to bed.”

Eventually, Rich told Jonathan—but not before he knew a complete recovery was underway.

He never knew that anything was wrong with me the entire time I was sick; he thought I had some minor throat surgery. I made sure that I got up in the morning when he was ready for school and made it look like everything was fine.

Rich explains his head and neck cancer had resulted from exposure to the human papilloma virus (HPV) when he was younger. While tobacco and heavy alcohol use are two of the main causes of head and neck cancer, HPV is becoming a major factor in the disease. Approximately 80 percent of the sexually active population in the United States has been exposed to HPV, and 14 million new infections are diagnosed every year.

“This is why the research going on at Jefferson is so important. When I was first diagnosed, I was told I had approximately one year to live if the cancer was not immediately treated,” he says. “The fact that they got this cancer out, that they did it in one surgery, that I’m here now… This is all the end result of years of research and clinical trials.”

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