On the Road Again
Always a fighter
Dan Buelt is not a man who quits when the going gets tough.
A lifelong Harley rider, Dan survived a serious hit-and-run accident with a truck and returned to ride thousands of miles cross-country. A union negotiator during the Bell Telephone System breakup, Dan fought hard to successfully combine two dozen Bell labor contracts into one with AT&T. A recovered alcoholic, Dan broke free from addiction to celebrate his 33rd year of sobriety.
So Dan is not the kind of man who lets a problem with a whisker slow him down.
“My neck was swollen around a sore that wouldn’t heal,” Dan remembers. “I thought it was an ingrown whisker, and I ignored it.”
A close friend, his “angel,” Dan says, finally insisted he see a doctor.
Dan was quickly referred to Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center.
The real problem was stage 4 cancer of the oropharynx, the middle part of the throat. A cancerous tumor had eaten its way through the healthy tissue in Dan’s neck, leaving a deep open wound.
Dan’s surgeon, Andrew Coughlin, MD, set a date to remove the tumor, then moved the surgery up due to the aggressive nature of the cancer.
“Dr. Coughlin called me over the weekend to say he had to cancel my surgery,” said Dan. “The new scans showed surgery would do more harm than good.”
Grim prognosis, new battle plan
In just days, the fast-growing tumor had formed an inoperable stranglehold on Dan’s aorta and carotid artery.
"I experienced such complete compassion and caring. I never felt like a patient. I felt like a person, and I knew I was someone they truly cared about.”
Dan’s best chance required a new battle plan and the ongoing collaboration of his Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center care team, led by Dr. Coughlin; oncologist Yungpo Su, MD; radiation oncologist Alireza Mirmiran, MD; occupational therapist and certified lymphedema therapist Wendy Buchholz; and oncology dietitian Jami Tran-Balk.
The prognosis was grim, and the chance of success in the single digits.
“Yet they told me they’d do everything they could to beat this,” Dan says. “Thank the good Lord they did.”
Hard road ahead
The rigorous treatment to shrink and then remove the tumor wiped out Dan’s immune system and robbed him of his strength, appetite and sense of taste.
“The nutritionists were so helpful with suggestions, smoothies and blender drinks,” Dan says. “But food made me nauseated. It was all like cardboard. My weight dropped from 210 to 119 pounds.”
With humor and grace, Dan endured one complication after another: swollen “chipmunk cheeks,” skin grafts, scar tissue, hearing impairment, neuropathy and a near-lethal gastrointestinal infection that kept him hospitalized for over a month.
Easing the journey
“There were times I got downhearted and wanted to give up,” Dan admits.
“But the nurses and everyone at Methodist made it easier to keep going. I experienced such complete compassion and caring. I never felt like a patient. I felt like a person, and I knew I was someone they truly cared about.”
Dan remembers the turning point in his long hospital stay when he finally felt he might be able to eat solid food again.
“My nurses had tried everything to get me to eat even a grape, and I couldn’t do it,” Dan says. “Then one day I asked for a scrambled egg, ate half and kept it down. The nurses were so excited, you’d think I’d given them a gift.”
Ready to ride
Today, Dan is back to a healthy weight. He enjoys retirement and looks forward to his next long-distance motorcycle trip — at a more relaxed pace.
A self-proclaimed former neat freak and perfectionist, Dan says he no longer sweats the small stuff and credits cancer with teaching him the importance of living for today.
“There is light”
His advice to others who may be weak and weary from their cancer battle: “Stay positive and have faith. The doctors and the medicines are a huge part of it. So are friends, family and belief in a power greater than yourself. Even when it seems darkest, there is light.”
The cancer journey has been long and hard, but Dan considers himself a very lucky man.
“I have no reason on earth to feel sorry for myself,” Dan says. “My recovery is nothing short of a miracle, and I have everyone at Methodist to thank.”
Dan Buelt is among those whose cancer journeys are featured in a series of “Faces of Hope” posters on display at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center. To see more Faces of Hope, visit HarpersHope.org. Harper’s Hope cancer survivorship services at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center are open to all cancer survivors, regardless of where or when cancer treatment is received.