Batman therapy, needle-nosed pliers, and a ‘club’ no one wants to join

Batman therapy, needle-nosed pliers, and a ‘club’ no one wants to join
Russell Smith MD, FACS, chief of the section of head and neck surgical oncology at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center with Gavin Turner

Survivor describes journey to health after cancer diagnosis

Sometime last year, I began losing my sense of smell. It was very gradual, which makes the timing hard to pinpoint. Someone would comment that something smelled good, and I would automatically agree, but doubt myself. I would spray cologne or air freshener and found that I could smell it, so I convinced myself nothing was wrong. But the smells were growing fainter, and soon they were gone. I’ve always had sinus and allergy issues, so based on that and from what little I’d read, I diagnosed myself with nasal polyps. 

The morning of New Year’s Eve last December (2019), I had one of my epic sneezing fits. Then the nosebleed started. It takes a lot to get me to the doctor, but the bleeding wouldn’t stop, and I snapped. I knew this wasn’t going away. 

Gavin Turner at the finish line of his 9th annual Bike MS Cycle to the Shore event in 2019, which raises money and awareness for Multiple Sclerosis
Gavin Turner at the finish line of his 9th annual Bike MS Cycle to the Shore event in 2019, which raises money and awareness for Multiple Sclerosis

I found a nearby ENT’s office. Even though the lady on the phone said they weren’t accepting new patients, I guess she could hear the panic in my voice because she said I could come in right away. As the doctor scoped in my nose, he let out a tight lipped “hmmmm.” One of those sounds that makes an already paranoid guy like me even more anxious. The doctor cauterized the bleeding and ordered a CT scan to identify what was blocking my ability to smell. While he said he suspected polyps, I felt uneasy. It was the “hmmmm.” 

A couple days later while I was at work, the doctor called. “I think you’re fine. It appears to be a big polyp,” he said. Whew. Sigh of relief. As he told me when I came in, he was referring me to another ENT since he was about to retire. Scans done. Diagnosis done. Should be a piece of cake from here, right?

Don’t grab the needle-nosed pliers just yet

I expected the new doctor to glance at the scan, read the previous doctor’s notes, and then grab some needle-nosed pliers and yank that sucker out. Then the glorious scents (and not so glorious) would be part of my world again.  But of course not. As he studied the scan and turned his head left, then right, staring at it, my heart rate accelerated. He showed me how the entire right side of my scan showed how clogged I was, and how my septum was shaped like the letter C rather than a straight line. He prescribed me oral prednisone steroids and another steroid that involved breaking open a capsule, mixing it in four milliliters of distilled water, laying on the bed with my head hanging upside down, and squirting this in my right nostril with a syringe to marinate for 15 minutes, twice a day for three weeks. I called it my Batman therapy. Each time, I would blow my nose and rush over to the medicine cabinet, open a jar of Vick’s Vapor Rub, and give it a whiff. Nothing.

After the three weeks, I was ordered to go for another CT scan. When we reviewed the scan, the doctor said much of the blockage had cleared up. Relief! But there was a curious egg-shaped mass that remained. If you were to wipe the inside corner of your eye right between the eye and the bridge of your nose, that is where this alien deeply resided. This led to more “hmmm”s. They must teach that in medical school! He decided to do an MRI on the mass to get a better, more three-dimensional look. So back to the imaging lab I went. 

Well, it doesn’t look like cancer

At my next appointment, Dr. Hmmmm 2.0 went over the MRI results and showed me the notes from the oncologist at the imaging facility. “No sign of cancer,” it said. The doctor said it could be a polyp…BUT – and there always seems to be a big but – he explained how some cancers are deceptive to scans, etc. He said he’d like to go ahead and do surgery. This would be to straighten my septum, roto-rooter my sinuses and pay a visit to this alien mass for exploratory purposes. 

I woke up from surgery with a new incision next to my eyebrow and VERY deep packing in each nostril. The surgeon called me that evening to tell me the growth didn’t feel like a polyp, so he took a few samples to biopsy and the immediate results showed “atypical cells.” They were doing more tests to pinpoint exactly what it was, but it would be a few days. I had that disturbing bit of news and a plugged sinus cavity to sleep on, which honestly didn’t bode well for a good night’s rest. 

Later that morning, with NO sleep from the night before, I convinced the doctor to meet me at the clinic because it felt like I had two corks in each nostril. I had been told to breathe through my mouth, but that’s easier said than done with severely chapped lips and a very dry throat. So, Dr. Hmmmm 2.0 met me and removed my nasal packing. I felt born again. 

Mr. Turner, I’m really sorry, it’s cancer

It’s funny how, the moment you’re diagnosed with cancer, day-to-day perceptions change permanently and drastically. I had several days to wait for the results, so that was plenty of time to go down a dark rabbit hole. Whether it’s related to time or life goals, you tend to think in the here and now. But when you have the big “C” looming, so many factors are included. The afternoon of March 10, Dr. Hmmm 2.0 called me with the news: “Mr. Turner, I’m really sorry, it’s cancer.” 

All I remember is walking out to my back patio while he told me and pacing around while he gave me the specifics. Sinonasal Undifferentiated Carcinoma. Malignant and very aggressive. When someone delivers news of that magnitude, you want to be mad. Those delivering the news are an easy target, but I’m convinced this man potentially saved my life. All he had to do was deliver this news and wish me the very best, but he’d already looked ahead to find out who my insurance accepted, then contacted doctors at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center in San Marco on my behalf to get me in the system. Had I done this on my own, it would have taken weeks. 

I immediately began receiving multiple calls and quickly associated these numbers with Baptist MD Anderson. It was multiple numbers from multiple people, and I got sick to my stomach every time the phone rang. But I didn’t just have a doctor, I had a TEAM. Never mind the shock of the news I’d received; I wasn’t given time to absorb it before I had this team of people ready to get busy. More ready than I was. But I was now a member of a club that no one wants to join. I was a cancer patient, and I would be meeting my team on Wednesday, March 18. 

Gavin Turner and his family in California. From left, Emily, Griffin, Gavin, and Lori Turner
Gavin Turner and his family in California. From left, Emily, Griffin, Gavin, and Lori Turner

I really wanted to hate this place

I had worked myself into such a frenzy leading up to my first day at Baptist MD Anderson, it was no surprise I wanted to hate the place. From the newness of the building, the beautiful architecture, the gleaming smiles from everyone working there, it was as if I was being forced to attend a Coldplay concert and LIKE IT. Every single person was great. They were compassionate, but not condescending. There were extremely attentive, resourceful, and immediately presented themselves as being in my corner. I was new to this world, but I knew that Baptist MD Anderson would fight for me. It began with meeting my team navigator, who would be my point person for everything. “You will be meeting a lot of people and getting lots of information. I am here for that. I will navigate you through all this.” 

Crap. I found myself wanting to like her. 

Then someone from the Oncology Chaplain services introduced herself. My wife, Lori, and I just wanted to take her home with us. There were others, and they were all great. We heard from everyone how the surgeon, Dr. Russell Smith, was a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is guy who doesn’t sugar coat or offer false hope. And that was fine, since I’d also heard the guy was an artist with a scalpel. When the time came for Dr. Smith and his lead nurse Meera to come in our already crowded room, he filled the room with presence and confidence. He could see how scared I was, and I’ll never forget how this no nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is giant of a man stood over me, placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “we can manage this.” Truly some of the most comforting words I’d ever heard. 

After reviewing previous scans and going in with the scope to take his own images, he carefully explained how this appeared to be a well-defined tumor with a lot of air around it. Along with some other factors, this indicated to him it hadn’t spread. He seemed pretty confident. So, the treatment plan would include surgery to cut a swatch encompassing the tumor and lift it out, then radiation therapy to blast the breeding ground where it resided. 

Folks, I had two of the best working on me. Dr. Smith would be going thru my right nasal passage to cut around the bottom and sides of the growth, then Dr. Eric Savageau of Baptist Neurology would work from the top. Picture if you will your right temple. Now, draw from there up to the top of your head then down the other side to the other temple. Then peel the face down and cut the skull to reveal the brain. Dr. Savengeau would manage that portion of it and perform, as he calls it, brain surgery without touching the brain. He’d be working underneath the frontal lobe.

There was one caveat. I needed to get a CT scan of my head and neck, as well as a full PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan. If it showed the cancer had spread anywhere, it was no longer a “cure Gavin” plan and this surgery was off the table, at least for now. 

Emily Turner and her father, Gavin, at the Florida Theatre
Emily Turner and her father, Gavin, at the Florida Theatre

I swear I felt something

At this point I have a week and a half before I am able to get my scans (thanks, insurance!), so a guy in my state of mind is certain every little tingle, every little muscle flex in my body, is my alien spreading. I was convinced that once I have those scans and they realize this that they’ll just have to find ways to “keep me comfortable.” This isn’t a pity thing, I promise. It’s just how my mind works. I could fill up two or three more chapters alone on the dark places this has taken me, but let’s just jump ahead.

 On March 25, I spent the day at Baptist MD Anderson with two CT neck and head scans, a full PET scan, a consultation with the neurosurgeon, and ending with a consultation with the oncologist, who would have my scan results. True to form, everyone was fantastic, and the final appointment Lori and I had with the oncologist couldn’t have gone better. When he said, “your scans all came back clean and look good, so let’s move forward with surgery,” it was as if I couldn’t hear anything else. I felt I’d won the lottery. Much more than that, actually. I remember crying uncontrollably in the lobby of that clean, brand new building I had wanted to hate so much. 

Time to cut it out

Several days prior to surgery, I was tested for COVID-19 for the protection of everyone in the operating room. After the test, I had to self-quarantine at home to be sure I didn’t contract the virus before surgery. I was confined to my bedroom and bathroom, with no other family allowed in, and I wasn’t allowed out. That was interesting. On top of that, we didn’t get the negative results until hours prior to the surgery. Otherwise, it would have been delayed. 

I had surgery on April 2, for eight to nine hours. I was in ICU for more than a week. Because of COVID, no visitors were allowed for my entire stay. I developed some respiratory issues and, because my condition was “declining,” I was put on a ventilator for two days. I remember very little of this, but the ventilator helped, and I was finally discharged on April 13. The next morning, I received a call from Dr. Smith’s office confirming what they anticipated after surgery. My biopsy results from surgery came back with clean margins and everything indicates they got it all. Once I recovered from surgery, I’d have radiation therapy for six weeks as an extra precaution.

It isn’t lost on me how lucky I have been so far, and I realize that could change. But everything my doctors have told me to expect so far has happened, so I have to trust that this treatment plan is intended to cure me. This has been life-changing, although I’m not yet sure how. I don’t think I need to figure that out right now. But I will certainly count my blessings and make sense of this someday. 

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: We are very lucky to have Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center here in Jacksonville. And they’re more than welcome to use this in their marketing materials, but the truth is, “I wanted to hate this place, but I just couldn’t.” The entire group is simply amazing. And sure, it’s easy to say this when you know you have a good shot, but even from the beginning, they were second to none. 

Last thing I’ll say is this. My close family and friends who were aware of what was going on were there at the drop of a hat to encourage me, crack a bad joke, or just hang out. All of them are just incredible. And then there’s Lori. She really is my rock. How she has weathered everything to this point with such resolve, grit and loving support is beyond me. To quote the cheesy line from Jerry McGuire, she really does “complete me.” So, moving forward, I’ll never smell or fully taste again, but given the alternative, I’ll take it. Besides, most of you guys stink. Now tell someone you love them before the day’s out. Thanks for reading.

Submitted by Gavin Turner

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