The Edmond Sun

October 23, 2012

Ricky Conley

James Coburn
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — A history of cancer had never been part of Ricky Conley’s family except for a grandfather who died of lung cancer. Conley said his grandfather was a cigarette smoker. So Conley was quite familiar with the word “cancer,” but it was only a word.

Since 2005 Conley has recovered from two unrelated types of cancer, one being stage-IV squamous cell carcinoma, he said. Today, he continues to serve as district manager for Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals.

“The first thing you feel is, ‘This can’t be me,’” said Conley, 56. “You hear ‘cancer’ all the time but you never think it’s going to be you. This time it was me.”

Physicians found squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue, tonsil and lymph nodes on the right side of his face. Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. An estimated 700,000 cases of SCC are diagnosed each year in the U.S.

Conley’s most recent bout with cancer was in April. A low-grade carcinoma was discovered in his parotid gland on the left side of his cheek, the largest salivary glands in humans.

“The first time, I thought I had allergies,” said Conley, who has asthma. “It was in the springtime. I had a minor sore throat and I thought it was from drainage.”

Antibiotics from his family physician did not clear his symptoms. Instead, a canker sore appeared on his tongue. Swelling began in his neck, so an ear, nose, and throat physician (ENT) ordered a biopsy. An oncologist set him on a six-month regiment of chemotherapy and radiation at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Conley participated in a clinical study for Erbitux, a new chemotherapy drug that is now available for widespread treatment. Without Erbitux, Conley believes he would have died if he had contracted the same cancer a decade earlier.

“This was a stage-IV life-threatening aggressive cancer. Squamous cell is very fast growing,” Conley said. “… It scares you to death, obviously. I went home and for a couple of days I couldn’t do anything. But then I said, ‘OK, I’m going to fight and I’m going to win.’ So you have to go in with a positive attitude. And, you have to keep that positive attitude the whole time.”

However, Conley would face a new challenge. He went to his yearly ENT check-up feeling a knot on his jaw bone below his ear lobe. It wasn’t going away.

“We thought it was a cyst because 80 percent of the time they are benign cysts,” Conley said.

A PET scan revealed a hot spot for malignancy. Surgery in May to remove the tumor lasted three hours at Mercy Hospital, he said. However, residual cells of the cyst were left wrapped around nerves in his lower and upper jaws, Conley said. He had two choices, radiation therapy or another surgery with probable nerve damage, Conley said.

“It would cause your eyes to droop or your mouth to drop,” he said.

Conley was given proton therapy treatment at the ProCure Proton Therapy Center, located in Oklahoma City. “Proton therapy is a powerful treatment for cancer and a highly effective alternative to X-ray radiation therapy,” said Dr. Sameer Keole, medical director.

Proton therapy and X-ray therapy both kill cancer cells by preventing them from dividing and growing, Keole said. The difference is that Proton therapy delivers a high, but very focused dose of radiation to the cancer but decreases the exposure of the normal healthy tissues by 65 percent, Keole said.

“I finished Aug. 3. Right now the conclusion is we feel like it’s gone,” Conley said.

His next check-up will be in November for a CT scan to make sure cancer is not detected.

“It’s a lot of prayers. A lot of people praying for you, not just yourself,” Conley said. “I think there’s no telling how many people were praying for me when I went through this the first time.”

The dynamics of cancer affect not only a patient’s coping process, but also their families. He and his wife Cathy have a son, Ryan, and live in Edmond.

“Have hope,” Cathy said. “It’s a small word with lots of meaning. Live each day as if your life had just begun. Understand, have courage, be strong. Keep laughing and have a sense of humor.”