Dave Halverson, known to many as the manager of the meat department at Coborn’s in Princeton, said that he already had an optimistic nature before he was diagnosed with cancer in early 2013.
Halverson, today, says he still feels he is an optimistic person, but because of his cancer experience, he is more appreciative of all that he has in life.
“The little things don’t mean as much,” Halverson, 51, said as he talked about surviving the HPV-related throat and neck cancer, squamous cell carcinoma.
In the past, he would have fretted if he didn’t get around to household and yard tasks as soon as he had wanted, , he said.
Now, family is more meaningful than getting the tasks done on time, he continued.
“Friends who encouraged you throughout your treatment mean a lot more to you,” he added. “I think my outlook on life has really changed. It’s different.”
Halverson has a scar on his neck from his cancer surgery and he now has to use a special toothpaste and mouthwash to deal with “dry mouth,” and he is missing three teeth that were removed to make his radiation treatments possible.
But Halverson said he is very grateful for being able to get the help he needed as quickly as he did and that the medical facilities he needed were so close. Those facilities, besides Fairview Northland in Princeton, were the Coborn Cancer Center in St. Cloud and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
In the fall of 2012, Halverson discovered very swollen lymph nodes on the left side of his neck.
He had a CT scan at Fairview Northland Medical Center in February 2013 to examine the swelling and it showed a mass of lymph nodes in the swollen area. He also had a needle biopsy taken of some of his lymph node cells at the Fairview Medical Center in Maple Grove. The biopsy information was sent to the Mayo Clinic, for a second opinion, and Mayo confirmed that Halverson had HPV-related cancer in his body.
Halverson called the Mayo Clinic on a Thursday in mid-March 2013 to get an appointment for more testing and was surprised that Mayo would be able to see him the following Monday. At Mayo, a scope was pushed through his nose and down his throat to look for what was suspected to be a tumor at the base of his tongue. Medical personnel couldn’t locate the tumor, Halverson said, explaining that there are pockets at the base of a tongue where a tumor can hide. Even a PET scan couldn’t locate it, he said.
It was confirmed that the lymph nodes on the left side of his neck had to be removed, and the surgery to try to remove the tumor and the lymph nodes was scheduled for Thursday of the same week at Mayo.
A doctor told Halverson mixed news about what he was to go through. The not so cheerful part was that the immediate aftereffects of the surgery would be painful. The good news was that this type of cancer is “highly curable.”
He was placed under general anesthesia for the surgery, and a doctor was then able to do what couldn’t be done otherwise without causing Halverson to have a gag reaction. That was to place a finger down his throat and feel around for the tumor at the base of his tongue. By doing that, the tumor was located. During the 2 1/2 to 3 hours of surgery, the surgeon removed the tumor on the left side of the base of his tongue with robotic equipment. Regular surgery was performed to remove the lymph nodes in the left side of his neck.
Halverson says that when he woke from his surgery, he could feel pain on the left side of his tongue.
“I felt pretty ecstatic,” he said, explaining that the pain at that spot meant the tumor had been found and removed.
Once home from the hospital, he made an appointment to visit the Coborn Cancer Center on April 1, 2013, to see if he should obtain further treatment. Radiation treatment and sometimes chemotherapy goes with this surgery, he said.
“Because I was stage 4 (of squamous cell carcinoma), it meant some of the lymph node cells had become encapsulated,” he said. “It meant they had started to grow outside of the cells.”
After consulting with radiation and chemotherapy oncologists, Halverson was set up to have a combination of both of these treatments. He received 33 days of radiation in a frequency of five days per week and received chemotherapy in three “heavy doses” of a chemical called cisplatin.
He started with his first dose of cisplatin early in the first day, followed by radiation in the afternoon, then had 15 more days of just radiation, and then the same sequence of chemo and radiation in one day and 15 more days of only radiation. Finally he had one more day of treatment with a heavy dose of chemotherapy and one radiation treatment. A port was placed in his chest to send the chemo into his body.
During the chemo treatment, his heart would begin “racing hard” and the blood pressure would go up, he said.
“I was quite tired afterward,” he remembers.
He added that the side effects of chemotherapy aren’t felt so much right away, but more as the treatments continue and the chemo builds up in the body. He was given different drugs to combat the nausea and fatigue that can come with chemo treatments.
He remembers feeling a lack of energy during the 10-15 days after his last chemo and radiation treatments. Then he started to rebound with a lot of the upswing coming from the chemotherapy chemical and the radiation leaving the body.
“I feel great today,” Halverson said.
His treatments ended in June 2013 and a PET scan at Mayo last November “showed everything was clear,” he said.
Halverson has a message for anyone who might feel symptoms that could indicate a health problem: “We are in charge of our health care, and if I don’t take care of my body and see a doctor when there are changes in my body, then there is nobody to blame,” he said. “Everyone should be an advocate for their health care.”
“I’m phenomenally thankful for my surgeon in Rochester and his team to be there on a Monday and have everything in place for surgery on Thursday,” Halverson said.
He also acknowledged the staff at the Coborn Cancer Center, from the receptionists to the nurses to the oncologists: “They knew how to take care of people and prescribe the right treatment process.
“I thank God every day that I got to the right place at the right time to take care of my cancer.”
Halverson added that his wife Kris “was right there with me from day one. Everything I needed, she was there with it.”
Halverson said he feels bad for anyone who goes through a cancer experience alone.
“You need a support group, you need someone to listen to what the doctors are saying and to understand what is going to take place,” he said. He also said the couple’s two grown daughters – Kassandra and Kyra – were there with support.
The experience is “emotionally and physically draining” and to bottle up any questions a person might have “kind of eats you up,” Halverson added.
Halverson said he believes that because of his experience, he has become more aware of people having the type of cancer he had. He estimates there are at least a half dozen people he knows in the area who have been diagnosed with this type.
Halverson called the Relay for Life coming up Friday, Aug. 1, in Princeton, where money will be raised for the American Cancer Society, a good opportunity to keep the subject of cancer “in the public eye.” Also, it’s important that people learn there are many people with a cancer diagnosis who continue to live, he said.
“The word ‘cancer’ is phenomenally scary in itself, but it doesn’t have to mean that it is the end,” he added. “There are treatments out there.”
As Halverson looks back on his experience, he said it was such a relief to know that people cared about him, including the many who saw him at his workplace and asked how he was doing.
After stretches of time off from work, Halverson returned to his job full time last September.
“I feel like a million bucks,” he said. “I like going to work. I love the people I work with. I love my customers. I go to work with a smile every day.”