Determined to Follow His Dream
- Purdue University student Eric Magallanes was following his dream of becoming a dentist when he received a shocking diagnosis after months of uncomfortable symptoms: tongue cancer.
- When Eric found a sore on the bottom of his tongue in September 2019, doctors told him it was likely a canker sore or possibly from strep throat. Then the pain started radiating to his ear; doctors brushed it off as swimmers ear.
- While doctors cannot determine exactly what caused Eric’s cancer, they do know it was not from alcohol or tobacco use, which are two of the main causes. Another culprit that causes head and neck cancers—and others like cervical and anal cancer—is HPV.
When Eric found a sore on the bottom of his tongue in September 2019, doctors told him it was likely a canker sore or possibly from strep throat. Then the pain started radiating to his ear; doctors brushed it off as swimmers ear.Read More
Eric went in to see the doctor he worked for when he was a dental assistant and they removed some tissue and sent it off for a biopsy.
It was the beginning of his spring semester in 2020 when he finally received his shocking diagnosis: squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue.
Strangely, he started smiling.
“OK, it’s cancer. It can’t be that bad,” he said. “I’m not going through bone cancer or leukemia, the common types of cancer you hear about that would definitely scare you. So when I got told I had cancer on my tongue, I thought simple surgery, get it removed. It can’t be that bad.”
Unfortunately, he was wrong. Though this was one of the most common types of tongue cancers, Eric didn’t yet understand what he would be going through.
Eric’s doctor urged him to take the diagnosis seriously, as nearly half of patients with this type of cancer wind up getting a stage 4 diagnosis. By the time that many people are diagnosed, it has already spread to the lymph nodes.
Telling His Parents He Has Tongue Cancer
Even more difficult than processing this devastating news was having to tell his parents. They came to the U.S. from Mexico and had only had an elementary school education. They took great pride in their son as a first-generation college student and always encouraged him to dream big.
“As they grew up, education wasn’t really an option. It was working on the farm,” he shared. “So, they always said, ‘Give it your all in school since you have the opportunity. We hope you guys come out more successful than we are.'”
Understandably, his mother Leonela was in tears when he delivered the news, blurting out, “Mom, I have cancer.” Then they called his father, Antonio, who was at work.
“He was just silent. He was in shock,” Eric said. “He had no idea what to do or what to say.”
Then it hit him. What he endured after was “horrific” and “unbearable” at times, and no matter how positive he tried to be, he faced many dark days.
When the family got a second opinion in Chicago and the doctor said his cancer may have already spread, Eric was advised to withdraw from school. “After I signed the papers, it finally hit me. This actually might be a lot worse than what I think.”
He sat on a bench and cried.
An Advanced Stage Diagnosis
When Eric finally had his surgery, doctors removed 32 lymph nodes, and “several came back cancerous.” They had to remove almost a fourth of his tongue. He had to spend ten days in the hospital. “It was really a struggle,” he admitted.
Since his cancer had sadly metastasized, Eric’s journey got even more tough, as he went through aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. He had to be fed through a feeding tube.
Once he started to heal from treatment, he had to then go through “intense” speech and physical therapy. He had to learn how to talk again.
Eric’s family reminded him there would be “light at the end of the tunnel,” which many cancer patients need to remember.
Making It Through Oral Cancer
Fortunately, in the end, he did get through it.
Eric is happy to report that not only has he now been in remission for two years, but he will also graduate from Purdue in spring 2023 and plans to start dental school after he receives his undergraduate degree.
Now honored by his school for his inspirational story of not letting go of his dreams, he is surely making his parents prouder than ever. Most importantly, he is doing it for himself.
This year’s Tyler Trent Courage and Resilience Award goes to Eric Magallanes, a Boilermaker who kept smiling and helping others even when oral cancer threatened to derail his dreams of becoming a dentist.
— Purdue University (@LifeAtPurdue) August 9, 2022
While doctors cannot determine exactly what caused Eric’s cancer, they do know it was not from alcohol or tobacco use, which are two of the main causes. Another culprit that causes head and neck cancers—and others like cervical and anal cancer—is HPV.
The human papillomavirus is spread through sexual contact. Since it can take many years for people to get cancer from this virus, it is still unclear how someone so young got this diagnosis.
Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, talked about HPV’s relation to cancer in an earlier interview with SurvivorNet.
“HPV is a virus that’s actually very well spread throughout Western society. Fortunately, for the majority of us, over 90%, we clear the virus without ever knowing that we were exposed,” Dr. Geiger said.
Due to the health dangers of this virus, Dr. Geiger urges parents to vaccinate their children.
“Now the key with the vaccine is that you received the vaccine before you ever reach sexual debut or have sexual encounters,” she advised. “So that’s why these vaccines are approved for young children ages 9, 10, 11 years old, up to 26.”