Cancer Patient Story: Sue Peiffer

Sue PeifferHer voice was her livelihood. She worked in customer service, putting in long hours, traveling for her job and spending most of her time on the phone. Then in late 1999, Sue Peiffer of Neenah, developed a cough that wouldn’t go away. Her voice, already raspy, became hoarse. In time, she had trouble swallowing. Sue’s primary doctor eventually referred her to the Head and Neck Cancer Program at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, where she was ultimately diagnosed with cancer of the voice box (laryngeal cancer).

Had Sue had the same diagnosis a decade earlier, she would have had her voice box removed, according to Bruce Campbell, MD, FACS, Medical College of Wisconsin otolaryngologist and head and neck cancer surgeon who was part of Sue’s treatment team. More than seven years after the diagnosis, she is healthier than ever and still working in customer service, making a living from her voice.

Leading-edge research made all the difference in Sue’s outcome. Because she came to Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, she was able to participate in a clinical trial that favored preserving the voice box over surgery to remove it. Officially, Sue was enrolled in RTOG 91-11, a Phase III trial that tested different combinations of chemotherapy and radiation therapy in treating advanced laryngeal cancer. In reality, being part of this clinical trial saved her voice box.

Sue remembered that when she first started feeling symptoms, she thought she was just overtired from traveling and working so much. “People at work noticed and would say, ‘Maybe you should have that checked out. Your voice just does not sound good.’ Then it started going into my ear, so that put up another red flag,” she said.

After trying different medicines, Sue’s doctor referred her to Todd Loehrl, MD Medical College of Wisconsin otolaryngologist. Dr. Loehrl used a scope to look through her nose and into her throat. It was a painful procedure, Sue explained, because there was a mass at the base of her tongue that wouldn’t allow the scope to pass. She was scheduled for a biopsy on the mass that same week, and that’s when Dr. Campbell came into the picture.

“I was relieved that they found something that was causing my hoarseness and not being able to swallow very well,” Sue said. “I just immediately thought, ‘I’ll get through this.’ That was my whole process. Just do what you need to do.”

The biopsy, which Dr. Campbell performed, confirmed that the tumor was cancer, and Sue was admitted to the hospital that same day. She spent a week there recovering from her weak condition and preparing for treatment.

When it came time to decide on a treatment approach, Sue met with Dr. Campbell, Stuart Wong, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin medical oncologist and Christopher Schultz, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin radiation oncologist, who were also part of her treatment team. “They gave me a series of choices and they recommended the most aggressive treatment. It was my decision whether to do it or not,” Sue explained. They recommended she take part in the clinical trial with the goal of treating her cancer without removing her voice box. “There were no guarantees. They could not at that point give any prediction as to what would happen.” Still, she trusted their expertise and decided to go with her team’s recommendation. That saved her voice.

The doctors, nurses and other specialists who cared for her made her feel so comfortable, Sue said. “I always felt like I was in good hands. I know they have so many patients, and I still felt like I was kind of a special case for them. I’m sure they just treated everyone with that special attention. And I still feel that way.”

Her family played an important role, too. Sue, whose parents both died of cancer, said her four brothers and their wives stepped right in to support her and take care of her during her treatment. “They had already planned out where I would be staying and my first visitors and transportation and who would be going up to my apartment and getting things for me. They contacted my employer, who said not to worry about a thing and to just get well.”

Once Sue was out of the hospital, she stayed with her brother and sister-in-law in Brookfield while she was undergoing treatment. She had radiation treatments five days a week for three weeks plus three sessions of chemotherapy that each required an overnight hospital stay, all during the same period.

“I just remember I would get very weak and tired,” Sue said of her treatment. “I will admit I probably wasn’t a very good patient because I just wanted to get better. At one point, I was getting so ill I almost wanted to stop. I’m glad I didn’t. You just kind of make yourself go on.”

When her treatment was done, she still had weeks of recovery ahead of her. She had lost nearly 30 pounds and weighed just 89 pounds at one point. Swallowing was difficult because of swelling, but she knew she had to eat. “That’s when I started getting into a physical routine, doing Pilates and things like that for myself, which put me in better physical shape than I’d been in probably 20 years,” Sue said.

She now feels she’s a better person physically and emotionally. Along with the great care she received, Sue credits her own determination to get back to her normal life and the solid support of her family and friends with helping her through it all. She even returned to volunteering at a local hospital gift shop, and says her friends there were a big help in her recovery.

Even though she has passed the five-year survival benchmark, she continues to follow up with her doctors once a year. “After you go through all of that, you may as well,” Sue said. In fact, at her exam in May 2007, Dr. Campbell told her her throat couldn’t look any better.

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