In Al’s story, he shares more than his personal journey with cancer. His diagnosis and treatment occurred in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the increased focus on social injustice happening in the country. This collision of occurrences served as the backdrop for his battle and intensified his compassion and understanding that everyone is dealing with “something.” And so many are dealing with more than one “something.”
In the spring 2020, Al Viller noticed a swollen lump on the right side of his neck, just below his jaw. It didn’t hurt, so he didn’t think much of it.
Thirty days later, the lump was still there. With the COVID-19 pandemic growing, he decided it was best to visit his primary care provider to get it checked out.
First course of action was a round of antibiotics for ten days. There was no response in the lump.
Next was a visit to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, who ordered a CT scan and a round of steroids for five days. There was still no change.
The ENT specialist ordered a second CT scan, this time with contrast, hoping to get a better look. Together, the two scans revealed a soft tissue mass that appeared to be attached to Al’s carotid artery.
Fast forward three months – after a second opinion, more doctors and a trip to Augusta to explore potential surgery, the surgeon suggested a biopsy be done first. After a thorough review, Al was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma at the base of his tongue. The treatment recommendation: radiation and chemotherapy.
While Al continued to focus on his work, Allison, his loving wife, began to research cancer treatment options close to their Peachtree Corners home. Her search led them to Northside Hospital Cancer Institute in Alpharetta.
Led by his radiation oncologist, Dr. Sandra Gregory, and his medical oncologist, Georgia Cancer Specialists’ Dr. Pradeep Jolly, Al said staff had “a deep compassion knowing what I was about to go through.”
“I knew we were in the right place,” he said.
On June 30, 2020, the first of 35 daily radiation treatments began, combined with weekly chemotherapy treatments for the next seven weeks.
After his treatments started, Al says that he initially responded to the question “How are you?” with words like “confident,” “resilient,” “determined,” “mindful,” “steadfast” and “thankful.” But as treatment progressed, it became more and more difficult. Words like “humbled” emerged.
“I remember one day in particular when I didn’t have a word,” Al said. “I felt badly because I knew the [medical] team would ask me… I was spent, physically and emotionally.”
“I got nothing today,” he told the Northside staff. “At that point, the head nurse looked straight at me, pointed her finger, and said with considerable conviction… ‘Courageous!’”
“That was exactly what I needed,” he adds.
The days, weeks and months that followed were some of the most difficult of Al’s life.
“Luckily, I have an incredible medical team that’s both knowledgeable and cares deeply about their patients,” Al said. “Luckily, there had been so many who have gone before me and participated in medical trials that enabled doctors to develop and refine a treatment that produced such high success rates. Luckily, I am supported by a loving community of incredible human beings from all corners of my life. Luckily, I married my soul mate who loves me in sickness and in health. Luckily, I have incredible children who have demonstrated strength and courage even when they saw their father so weak and close to a breaking point.”
Al has recorded his personal journey with cancer in a podcast.
“As a part of my healing process, I captured some memories, thoughts and feelings before they faded,” he said. “It was cathartic for me to share my experience in the form of a story.”
*The health story shared here may portray atypical results of survival for this type of cancer, given its severity and stage. Atypical results are considered surviving a cancer that has less than a 50 percent five-year survival rate. Patients should consult an expert to discuss specific treatment plans and the possible outcomes before making medical decisions.