Robert (Bob) Margolis: Three-Time Cancer Survivor and Advocate for HPV Awareness and Vaccination
I am living proof that cancer is not a death sentence.
I survived three bouts with cancer: a diagnosis and recurrence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and a diagnosis of stage IV HPV–related head and neck cancer. I believe I survived for a reason, and I am committed to educating others about the increasing number of head and neck cancer cases in the United States, an unfortunate circumstance in that this type of cancer can often be caused by infection with a sexually transmitted virus, the humanpapilloma virus (HPV). Fortunately, HPV infection can now be prevented by vaccination with either Gardasil or Cervarix.
As a sports writer covering NASCAR, I was always tired toward the end of the season after being on the road for 30-plus weekends. But in the fall of 2006, the tiredness was much worse than normal. Then, during one race weekend, I noticed a lump in my groin about the size of a golf ball. I was scared.
I saw my family doctor when I got home, and he took one look at the lump, which was now the size of a baseball, and told me to go to the hospital. There, after a CT scan of my entire body, the ER [emergency room] doctor came in and said, “It seems you may have something going on and it is possibly cancer.”
The next day I saw an oncologist, and he told me that he believed I had diffuse large B cell lymphoma, a common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but that surgery and a proper biopsy would confirm his diagnosis. This would have to wait, as I had plans to get married. So, on December 22, I got married in the Little White Chapel on the Strip in Las Vegas; the day after Christmas, I had surgery to remove the enlarged lymph node in my groin.
Next up were six rounds of chemotherapy. It was tough, but I went about my business covering NASCAR. I would have chemo on Tuesday, rest on Wednesday, and then fly to a race on Thursday. This schedule worked well until the fourth round of chemo. By then, I felt as though I were walking around in a lead suit at the race track. I was on pain meds, and my oncologist prescribed a drug called Marinol, which is a synthetic marijuana. But it didn’t work, so I turned to medical marijuana, as it was the only thing that made my nausea and feeling of malaise any better.
During my chemo treatments, I had a lump on my neck that would shrink and come back again after each round. PET [positron emission tomography] scans following my final round of chemo still showed hot spots in my neck. My local oncologist assured me the lump would eventually go away with more chemo, but I wanted a second opinion. I went to see an oncologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, who said, “You don’t have non-Hodgkin lymphoma anymore; you have something else and you need to see Dr. Greg Weinstein at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.”
I saw Dr. Weinstein, an otorhinolaryngologist [ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist] the very next day. After two needle biopsies, he told me I had stage IV head and neck cancer caused by HPV. It was overwhelming. How could I still have cancer? I started crying, and as I got up to get a box of tissues, Dr. Weinstein stood up and hugged me. As he did, he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll make you better.”
He was true to his word, but the treatment was tough. It consisted of a number of surgeries, including one that was done by the Da Vinci device, which is a robot, and very cool. I learned that my transoral robotic surgery (TORS) for oral cancer was part of a new procedure being pioneered by Dr. Weinstein.
After all my surgeries came more chemotherapy. Then came the radiation, and it was brutal. Monday through Friday, for six weeks, I was strapped to a table for 20 minutes of focused radiotherapy. The only thing that got me through my treatments was listening to one of my favorite Pink Floyd albums, "The Division Bell."
In March 2008, Dr. Weinstein declared me free of head and neck cancer, but it was about a year after that before I really felt better.
Having two cancers in one year was very difficult, and I would not have been successful in my battle without my wife and three daughters, who tirelessly helped me through the whole experience. They and others like them are the unsung heroes.
Unfortunately, in 2013, I had a recurrence of my non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Treatment of a relapsed disease was extremely different. It was far more difficult. Following four rounds of in-hospital chemo, I was admitted to the stem cell transplant program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where I was treated by Dr. Jakob Svoboda. I was discharged from the active portion of the program in January 2014, although my scans and blood are still being monitored.
HPV-caused head and neck cancer is incredibly common, and the need to increase awareness about this is critical, especially among men ages 40–65. It can be difficult to discuss getting a sexually transmitted cancer, but it is time to talk about it. I have started a nonprofit organization called “High Performance Voices” to educate Americans about the pandemic of head and neck cancers and about how to talk to their doctor when they have that persistent sore throat or blister in their mouth. My nonprofit is also dedicated to educating young adults and parents about the HPV vaccines. We can prevent a generation of young Americans from having to go through the same experience I did.
The AACR was saddened to learn that Bob Margolis passed away on Sept. 22, 2016. We are deeply grateful to Bob for sharing his experience with cancer in the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2013 to help educate others and advocate for continued funding of cancer research. We send our sincere condolences to Bob's family and friends.
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