One night in November 2016, Peter Pushor woke up to use the bathroom. But when the 73-year-old retiree living in northern Maine tried to go back to bed upstairs, he found himself struggling to walk.
“I realized I was awfully weak, and I couldn’t take more than four or five steps,” said Pushor, who was widowed and living alone at the time. “I knew something was really, really wrong.”
He dialed 9-1-1 for the first time in his life and was taken to a hospital in Bangor. After several exams, Pushor learned he had advanced esophageal cancer.
That discovery was the first time Pushor would confront cancer, but it would not be his last. He ultimately overcame two bouts of complex, life-threatening cancers, thanks to the expert care he received at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center (DFBCC).
“There are no signs of any problems today,” said Pushor, whose care team continues to monitor him but has otherwise declared him cancer-free. “It’s just a miracle to be where I am today.”
Shortly after Pushor began radiation therapy and chemotherapy in Maine for esophageal cancer, it became clear a surgical intervention was necessary. He was referred to Scott J. Swanson, MD, a Brigham thoracic surgeon and director of the Minimally Invasive Thoracic Surgery Program.
“I was so thankful and grateful to be with Dr. Scott Swanson,” Pushor said. “At the time, I was aware that he was probably the best surgeon in the country.”
To remove Pushor’s cancer, Swanson and his team performed an esophagectomy — surgical removal of the esophagus — an extensive and complex procedure with a difficult recovery process.
Due to the nature of his surgery, Pushor could not eat solid foods while he healed in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, requiring a surgical feeding tube to meet his nutritional needs during his post-operative recovery. He credits the care and treatment he received at the Brigham with helping him regain his strength.
“This is where I started to realize that if I want to get out of here and get well, I need to do exactly what they’re telling me to do: Get up on my feet,” Pushor said.
Next, he participated in a yearlong clinical trial for an immunotherapy drug beginning May 2018 under the supervision of Swanson and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Jeffrey Wisch, MD. Pushor remembered his medical team being cautious about optimism, given the severity of his disease prior to surgery, though his hope never wavered.
“I was so positive that I was going to beat this, and I felt so good,” he said. “Every day, I was feeling stronger and stronger, and every day there’s more and more appreciation for where I am and where I’m headed.”
Swanson added: “I think people underestimate how helpful that is to somebody’s outcome, when they can come in positive, strong and in good shape.”
Five years after the initial 9-1-1 call, Pushor’s care team declared him cancer-free. But little did he know that cancer would soon become part of his life again.
A Surprising Discovery
In June 2021, Pushor noticed one of his lymph nodes in his throat was swollen to the size of a pencil eraser. He was referred to Danielle Margalit, MD, MPH, of the Department of Radiation Oncology, and Rosh Sethi, MD, MPH, of the Division of Otolaryngology, who confirmed Pushor had cancer again. Although the tumor was in a similar location to his first bout with the disease — this time at the base of his tongue — it was a different cancer entirely.
Following a biopsy and laryngoscopy, Sethi determined that the neck mass contained squamous cell carcinoma — the most common type of head and neck cancer. It was caused by human papilloma virus, better known by its acronym HPV. Although more commonly associated with cervical cancer in women, HPV can also lead to oral and oropharyngeal cancer in both sexes.
Pushor’s care team partnered with him to determine the best treatment plan, which ultimately consisted of 33 radiation treatments from June through July 2021, a process that essentially meant Pushor lived in Boston during that period.
“He was very knowledgeable in terms of thinking through what for him personally would make the most sense,” Sethi noted. “He really trusted us, which is a difficult thing to do when you have cancer in your life and a prognosis in someone else’s hands.”
His previous experience with cancer in the same area of the body was something Margalit said she had to account for in planning his treatment.
“I had to make sure that when I treated his lymph nodes in his neck that I didn’t overlap from where he’d had radiation before,” she said. “Because if there’s too much radiation where it overlaps, it can cause dangerous side effects.”
Despite the rigor of his treatment, Pushor maintained hope throughout the ups and downs of the process.
“It’s almost like a roller coaster,” he said. “You’d have a few days where you’d be worn down and fatigued, and then you’d kind of come out of it to almost normal feelings, and then it was up and down for several months. But here I am today.”
Cared for ‘as a Patient and a Person’
Pushor was considered cured after recent scans and blood tests showed no cancer in his throat. He is now in the monitoring phase, which entails a visit with his medical team every few months.
In addition to his constant optimism, Pushor credits the support of his family and friends as well as his faith for getting him through his ordeal.
“My wife was there beside me, helping me with every step all the way,” he said. “I attribute my positive attitude to my routine that she kept me on — made sure I was up to date with all my pills, supplements, fluids and food — to keep me strong. She was a big factor.”
Pushor emphasized how grateful he is to DFBCC for the care he received.
“They are truly, deeply concerned about you as a patient and as a person, and they want you to be comfortable and are there for you,” Pushor said, “I just can’t say enough good about them.”
Nowadays, Pushor is back home in northern Maine, where he spends time outdoors and enjoys his retirement.
“It’s so enjoyable to get out, be around people and go snowmobiling, ice fishing and to the festivals that they do here,” he said. “It’s so much to look forward to, and I’m so thankful to be where I am health-wise. I love it.