David’s Story: Wrestling Cancer

It's not something you want to put anyone through if you can avoid it.

As a former wrestling champion, you might be surprised to hear that cancer is a lot like wrestling. One difference: it can be tough to size up your opponent.

Learning I had neck cancer in late 2016 was utterly shocking. Your neck is just always there—holding your head up. Now I was in a new position with a set of rules written seemingly in Greco-Roman.  All of a sudden various doctors and technicians had to take scans and tissue samples to confirm what we were dealing with. Waiting for the phone call was a test of my mental resilience, call it wrestling with my wits. 

The doctor told us it was stage 4 HPV-related cancer. I had the match of my life ahead of me and it would include chemo and radiation.  I wondered if I was physically and mentally prepared for my challenge.

 Facing off

An old joke from the first Greek Olympics says they held only two events, running and wrestling. If you couldn’t wrestle, you ran from the wrestlers. There was no running from my cancer. So I had to face off my merciless foe. 


I wanted to know what to expect. My doctors tried to help answer my many questions, but looking back, how could they fully prepare me for what lay ahead?


My ENT said, “Your throat might hurt.”

My oncologist said, “Food might taste a bit different.”

My radiologist said, “You’ll have some extra saliva and lose some weight.”

Let’s just say they put things mildly. Cancer and chemo gave me a one-two pummeling.  I went into lockdown under a radiation mask and had my arm pinned to the chemotherapy IV tree. My team kept me going with the routine of “just another day beating cancer together.”

Fortunately, my experience of trimming down pounds as a wrestler back in high school and college helped me know I could withstand the ordeal of weight loss. For better or worse, having trained as a wrestler made me feel I could defend myself. I was going to go with that feeling

Mainstream and just in time

I had a whole medical team treating me. But among those whose advice and support I counted on most was my wife, a naturopathic doctor practicing in Portland. Believe me, when I got my diagnosis I also heard a lot of advice and new ideas about what to do. Elaine confidently kept us on a mainstream treatment. Why?  She’d already seen two colleagues contract the same strain of HVP16 neck cancer as me. They had begun using alternative treatments and by the time they decided to use conventional treatment it was too late.  We wanted to have the upper hand, if not the upper choke hold on my cancer.  After all, this was about saving my life. 

When it was all over, each treatment group gave me a “graduation ceremony.” One was a song in three-part harmony, the other a march under a canopy of bubbles. It was beautiful.

 David’s message about HPV cancer prevention

A year after treatment I’ve talked to friends and strangers about what I call an awkward cancer. It has a vaccine younger parents should embrace. Any folks I’ve run into who express doubts about the effective cancer vaccine, I win them over with, “Imagine fearing the jolting pain in your throat with every swallow, every tear inducing sneeze, and trying to hide it so your loved ones don’t share the agony. Now imagine it in a child or grandchild when it could be prevented. That’s the HPV vaccine you need to know more about.”


I’ve also spoken to other survivors in person, met them online, and always ask them about the available cancer vaccine. They not only would have been vaccinated, but regret that their kids are older than the ideal vaccination age.

Lastly, watching the wounded faces of friends and family in my presence was much harder than I imagined. It’s not something you want to put anyone through if you can avoid it. A vaccine that prevents cancer is a just a no-brainer.

David Gillaspie

David Gillaspie is a writer/blogger living in Portland, Oregon. His blog is boomerpdx.com. His wife Dr. Elaine Gillaspie, and two adult sons, all chipped in to keep him in fighting shape even when the cancer fighting spirit waned. A former wrestler in a wrestling family, comparing cancer survival to sports was a natural fit. Winning the match took all they could give. It came together just in time.

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