Darius Parrish, a 42-year-old Howell resident, shrugged off an earache, hoping it would go away on its own. But when he woke up one morning a few days later, his wife looked at him and knew something wasn’t right.
“The left side of my face was drooping down,” Darius recalls. “My wife, Tamika, is an RN, so I followed her advice and headed straight to the Emergency Department.”
Upon arriving at CentraState, physicians and nurses first ruled out the possibility of a stroke. When a CT scan revealed a tumor in his neck, Darius was admitted for more tests.
Gregory Smith, MD, a board-certified otolaryngologist on staff at CentraState, suspected that cancer was a possibility, and he performed a biopsy on the tumor. Unfortunately, his concerns were confirmed: Test results from the hospital’s pathology department revealed that Darius had advanced oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, a type of head and neck cancer.
“Darius’ cancer originated in one of his tonsils, and it had spread to his lymph nodes,” Dr. Smith says. “The cancer was associated with human papillomavirus, or HPV, which is a very common virus—in fact, recent research shows that 1 in 9 men in the U.S. has oral HPV.”
Dr. Smith gently explained the situation to Darius, who says he’ll never forget the day he heard the news.
“My world was spinning—I just kept thinking about my family,” he recalls. “To my young sons, I’m a superhero, a dad, and a coach. Tamika and I decided we were going to spare them any unnecessary anxiety and buckle down to take this on together.”
Establishing a Treatment Plan
Dr. Smith worked collaboratively with board-certified hematologist/oncologist Jeffrey Silberberg, MD, and radiation oncologist Neesha Rodrigues, MD, to create a treatment plan. The goal was to minimize side effects with the best possible outcome.
“Due to the extent of lymph node involvement, the standard of care for Darius was to begin with radiation and chemotherapy to try to achieve optimal results while sparing him from a potentially difficult surgery,” Dr. Rodrigues explains. “Chemotherapy can make the cancer cells more susceptible to radiation therapy and help facilitate better outcomes with this type of locally advanced cancer.”
Dr. Silberberg adds, “Because Darius had a specific marker called p16 positive, he had a good prognosis for this course of treatment to work effectively compared to some other types of head and neck cancers. He was also strong and physically fit going into treatment, which always helps.”
Shrinking the Tumor
Darius began a seven-week treatment course of intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) five days a week and cisplatin every three weeks, a chemotherapy standard of care, at the Statesir Cancer Center at CentraState. Before every radiation treatment, Darius underwent a CT scan to ensure that the radiation delivery was set up meticulously.
“While we’ve been treating head and neck cancers for many years, the technology has become more and more advanced,” Dr. Rodrigues adds. “With IMRT, we create a patient plan with our physics department to precisely sculpt the radiation dose to the tumor area—thus sparing healthy tissue and lowering the risk for long-term side effects. This was particularly important for Darius, as the cancer was near his salivary glands and swallowing muscles.”
Darius credits his health care team, his wife, and some special friends for helping him through the experience.
“CentraState and Dr. Silberberg’s office staff were wonderful,” Darius says. “They explained that it was an aggressive treatment for an aggressive cancer, so I had some side effects like feeling exhausted and losing my appetite. But the doctors, nurses, dietitian, and social worker really got me through it.”
Living Life Fully
The tumor shrank down over the course of treatment, and Darius has a very positive prognosis. He’s now back to focusing on his family, enjoying his hobbies of fishing and race car driving, and working as a truck driver. He’s also looking forward to resuming his coaching role soon.
“For anyone who might be facing a similar situation, I want to say that it’s not the end of the world when you have faith and line yourself up with the right people,” Darius adds. “I was blessed with three amazing doctors and a great team, and I’m on the road back to 100 percent.”