Over Thanksgiving 2016, Paul Glasser, 34, thought that a seasonal cold or the flu finally struck him, as he noticed he was losing his voice.
"My primary care physician thought it was just post-nasal drip that would clear up on its own, but it continued to worsen, so I saw an ear, nose and throat specialist,” he says.
Acid reflux was considered, but then a trip to Keith Wilson, MD, associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology and a UC Health ENT specialist, led to a different diagnosis.
"He saw that my left vocal cord was paralyzed,” Glasser says. "They did a CT scan right before Christmas to find out why this was happening which was when they found the mass in my lung.”
Glasser says the holiday season was not as joy-filled as anticipated, with an appointment for a biopsy awaiting him after the initial scan.
"It was terrible thinking it was cancer, but not knowing for sure,” he says. "It was pretty devastating finding out it was cancer, too.”
On the Tuesday after Christmas, a bronchoscopy and biopsy confirmed that Glasser had lung cancer. It was stage IV; it had also spread to his brain.
"I had a job lined up, and I was supposed to start the day of the biopsy,” he says. "I was young and healthy—I did CrossFit three days a week. When I heard that it was stage IV cancer, I thought it was the end of the line. I thought, ‘Well, that is what is going to kill me. Do I have weeks or months?’”
Glasser was referred to John Morris, MD, PhD, co-leader of the UC Cancer Institute's Comprehensive Lung Cancer Program, professor in the Division of Hematology Oncology at the UC College of Medicine and UC Health medical oncologist. Under Morris’ care, his tumor underwent genetic analysis.
The test showed his lung cancer had a rare alteration called an "ALK” translocation which affects only 3 to 4 percent of lung cancer. This is where two different chromosomes, the genetic material of the cell, break and abnormally recombine activating genes that can make a cell cancerous, However, this also provided insight to Morris on the best way to treat him.
"There is a class of targeted drugs that are extremely effective in treating this type of cancer,” says Morris, who is also a member of the Cincinnati Cancer Consortium. "A change in voice or hoarseness, as experienced by Paul, can be a sign of lung cancer when it invades the structures in the center of the chest and injures the nerves that control the vocal cords. This type of lung cancer occurs more frequently in non-smokers and younger patients.”
However, it comes with some complications.
"One of the side effects is that it can damage the liver,” Glasser says, adding that he had to have regular blood tests to make sure he wasn’t losing liver function. "Unfortunately, it was causing some damage, so I had to completely stop treatment for two to four weeks while my liver healed. Then, they put me back on a lower dose of the medication; as of April, I’m back to a full dose of the drug.”
Prior to this targeted therapy, Glasser had stereotactic radiation therapy to treat his brain tumors. He was then put on steroids and underwent surgery to repair his vocal cord; he also had speech therapy to regain use of his voice.
"I couldn’t drive for a month at one point, which was very tough, and on top of that, I couldn’t sleep at night,” he says. "I did a lot of organizing and cleaning in those days to keep my mind and body occupied.”
Glasser also worked with the UC Cancer Institute’s Oncofertility Program prior to beginning treatment, in order to preserve his options for starting a family one day.
"Being young, I still wanted that choice available to me if I needed it,” he says.
The treatment is working. Glasser’s lung mass, once roughly 7 by 7 centimeters, has nearly shrunk by half in three months; his brain tumors are almost gone completely.
"I have to take a pill twice a day and then have a number of follow up scans and check-ups, but … I am really lucky,” he says. "At this point, it looks like I’m going to have a pretty normal life.”
Glasser says the experience gave him a new perspective on life—one that is bringing out his adventurous side.
"I was kind of reserved before all of this, and this has really helped me to kind of break out of my shell,” he says. "I always wanted to go to New Orleans, and I recently took a trip there with my dad and my uncle. The cancer made me ask myself, ‘What are you waiting for?’ It helped me realize that our time is really precious, and we should make the most of it. Once a picky eater, now everything is on my table. I take risks now to better myself. Life is too short.”
Glasser, who has his master’s degree in history, is hoping to become a high school teacher; right now, he’s an online adjunct instructor for Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, and he also substitutes at local public and private high schools.
"My advice for someone in the fight with cancer is to stay positive, stay active and stay focused,” he says, adding that he dove into his hobby of building scaled-down model vehicles and buildings when he was undergoing treatment. "I started volunteering at the local animal shelter and at Matthew 25: Ministries; I also continued to stay active through CrossFit—if I can do it, anyone can.
"I’m thankful for this second chance, and I’m thankful I had my team at UC. Dr. Morris knows what he’s doing, and he worked immediately to help me.”