Sitting in a doctor's office, Tom Roberts felt the world closing in on him.
Sitting in a doctor's office, Tom Roberts felt the world closing in on him.
"You have throat cancer," the doctor said.
Roberts' senses became distorted. Sounds became garbled. He felt numb.
An unlikely candidate for throat cancer, Roberts, who didn't drink or smoke, knew he was in for a battle.He also knew he was up for the challenge.
"I had a growth in my throat and I thought it was just tonsillitis, because I never had my tonsils out and had had tonsillitis on and off since I was a kid," said the 58-year-old Roberts, who will coach the Northridge High School football team this fall. "My dad, Earl, was one of those old geezers who didn't think you went to the doctor unless it was killing you, so I never had my tonsils taken out.
"But the growth became the size of a golf ball and I knew something
wasn't right. I went to my family doctor (Dr. Anthony Restuccio) and he sent me to an ear, nose and throat specialist (Dr. Minka Schofield) at Ohio State. After being in the examination room for about five seconds, (Dr. Schofield) said, 'You have throat cancer.'"
Not only did Roberts not drink or smoke, but he also led a healthy lifestyle. He played two-hour sessions of pickup basketball at least three times a week and ran stride-for-stride with teenagers during practice as an assistant coach with the Northridge boys basketball program.
But still he wasn't ready for the news he received on Oct. 15, 2010.
"When (Dr. Schofield) said that, it was kind of like when you are playing sports and get hit in the head, like in football. You really don't know what's going on around you," said Roberts, a Pataskala resident who works in real estate. "Nothing was making sense and my mind was going 100 mph. Will it kill me? Will I be OK? The brain overloads and kind of shuts off. It makes you feel kind of numb, but after I thought about it, it was OK.
"My first question was whether it was going to kill me. (Dr. Schofield) said because we caught it early and I was in good health, it was probably 80 percent it wouldn't kill me and 20 percent that it would. That's better odds than driving to work every day. I can deal with that.
"It's just one of the challenging moments you have in life. Athletics teach us to get back up and fight and I wasn't about to quit. You either stay on, work and enjoy life or die. (Fighting it) was a lot better than the alternative."An easy decision
Roberts was referred to Dr. Amit Agrawal, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at OSU. After looking at the growth, Agrawal suggested either surgery or a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
"(Dr. Agrawal) said the surgery would entail cutting from my bottom lip through the Adam's apple and breaking my jaw and spreading the mandibles apart like they do to the rib cage for a heart operation," Roberts said. "When I heard that, I asked him when I could start chemo and radiation treatments. That sounded good compared to that procedure."
On Oct. 29, Roberts started radiation and chemotherapy under the supervision of oncologists Dr. Farzan Sidduqu and Dr. Angerpereet Neki.
"I had 40 treatments of radiation and eight doses of chemotherapy," Roberts said. "Chemo made me really nauseous and I wasn't able to think clearly. I would get what they call 'chemo stares' when I would catch myself focusing on lights or walls, and I wouldn't even know how long I had been doing it - maybe minutes, maybe hours.
"My concentration was also affected. I couldn't even read a newspaper article. Heck, I couldn't make it through a comic strip. I couldn't concentrate that long."Sidelined
Despite being treated for throat cancer, Roberts continued his duties as junior varsity coach for the Northridge boys basketball team. It gave him a sense of normalcy.
"I actually picked him up from the doctor's office when he found out the lump in his throat was cancerous," said John Wheeler, Northridge head boys basketball coach. "The one thing he stressed was that he didn't want anyone to know about it. The last thing he wanted to do was become a distraction to anyone in the program. He's a hard-worker and extremely dedicated."
But the chemotherapy took a toll mentally and physically on Roberts. It became apparent it was time for him to rest instead of coach.
"His last game was Jan. 14 against Utica and he didn't get up off the bench one time when he was coaching," Wheeler said. "He usually has more energy than me when we're in open gym and he is usually pretty animated when he's coaching, but he didn't have the energy to even get off of the bench. The chemo and radiation treatments had finally taken it away from him. We sat down and I said that he needed to take time off, as much time as he needed to take."
Wheeler and assistant basketball coach Jeff Stought helped Roberts through the treatments.
"(Wheeler) helped immensely. He and coach Stought were constantly checking on me, calling or stopping by to see if I needed anything," Roberts said. "They would drive all the way from Northridge to Pataskala to make sure I was OK. They were always encouraging and supportive.
"I'm not the kind of person who is used to having people do things for me. (Stought and Wheeler) were remarkable. You don't know what you have until it's gone. When I wasn't around them every day, I realized how good of friends they were and still are. They have been great to me and have been true friends."Wheeler said it wasn't easy watching his friend struggle.
"Personally, I had never seen anyone with cancer as close up as Tom," Wheeler said. "He always had a lot of energy whether it was during open gym or talking basketball on the phone. But (after taking his leave), you could tell Tom was struggling. You could tell what kind of day he was having by the way he sounded on the phone. The treatments had drained the energy out of a guy who had all of the energy in the world. But he fought it. ... He fought it every day."Valentine's Day
The final treatment came on Feb. 14, but Roberts then had to meet with Sidduqu to discuss the PET (positron emission tomography) and CT (computerized tomography) scans. The results did not return for two weeks.
"There was a lot of trepidation before the last meeting with him because it was D-Day - either I still have cancer or I was OK," Roberts said. "(Dr. Sidduqu) showed me the before and after scans and you could see it was gone. From the top of my head through my knees, there was no cancer anywhere. It was like I could breathe again. He told me that I would really be OK and that it wasn't just wishful thinking, but a reality.
"Where did the cancer come from? No one was sure. (Dr. Sidduqu) said it could have been dormant in me for 20 years and just recently surfaced. Some cancers are fast-acting and others take their time. This was a slow form of cancer."
Being cancer free did not end all medical issues for Roberts, who still has difficulty swallowing and a raspy voice. He also suffered kidney complications from the chemotherapy and radiation, and heart palpitations reaching as many as 300 beats per minute. He had lost his hair and dropped from 212 pounds to 163.
"I still have trouble swallowing because of the scar tissue from radiation," said Roberts, who slept about 16 hours per day during recovery. "I was going five days a week to get radiation treatments that my doctor referred to as 'massive doses that were the most permitted by law.' I have so much scar tissue that I have to massage it every day.
"(The treatments) also kill the saliva glands. Saliva helps with digestion and lubricates the vocal chords. I have to carry around bottles of water to keep my vocal chords lubricated. Also, I have to take pills to emulate saliva. You never realize this but without saliva you can chew the food all you want but it just turns into a cotton ball and sticks in your throat. Nothing tasted good and that's why I lost (weight). I've finally gotten up to 178 (pounds) and have stayed there for a couple of weeks."A new start
In May, Northridge athletics director Wayne Howard approached Roberts about being the Vikings' football coach. Newly hired Kyle Cutnaw had resigned in April to take a position at Upper Sandusky to ensure he would be teaching this fall should Northridge's 1 percent income tax fail on its May 3 vote. The levy did fail, forcing a $500 pay-to-participate fee for each sport.
"I have always been active and when Mr. Howard asked if I would be interested in coaching, I said I would as long as I got a clean bill of health," said Roberts, who was an assistant with the Olentangy football program for nine years and was the team's defensive coordinator in 2008. "I was still learning how to walk again. I still don't have anywhere near the stamina that I used to have."
But he has been working on regaining his old form, one step at a time.
"I have been walking five miles a day and I started jogging about three weeks ago," Roberts said. "The first time I jogged it was like I didn't have any muscle memory. I didn't have any balance. It felt like I was falling forward more than jogging and I couldn't go more than 20 yards.
"I live in a subdivision and my goal is to jog an extra driveway every day. If I can get up to a mile, maybe I can start to run some sprints. We'll see where I go from here ... one driveway at a time."