Ken McDermott is a hard-working, blue collar resident of Moultrie, Georgia, who always tries to do the right thing. That’s why when Ken turned 50, he did what any responsible older male is supposed to do at that age: get your PSA level checked, especially if you are considered at-risk for prostate cancer.
McDermott certainly fit that category. His father, Lewis DeMott, had just passed away from prostate cancer four months earlier, and McDermott knew he had to get tested.
He went to his family physician, Dr. Kirby Smith, who told McDermott that his levels were testing high. Smith referred McDermott to a urologist, who performed a biopsy on McDermott’s prostate. The biopsy came back positive for cancer.
The specialist wanted to perform surgery. However, a few days later, McDermott happened to run into a friend who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer a couple of years earlier. He suggested that McDermott visit a doctor in Riverdale, Georgia, who had performed surgery on him and was well known around the country for treating men with prostate issues. McDermott agreed to go see the Atlanta-area urologist, and he was immediately impressed.
“Dr. Malizia was treating patients from all around the country,” McDermott said.
Surgery was the agreed upon treatment, but once the doctor went in and began to operate, he stopped. Several large blood vessels feeding the cancer had grown around the prostate.
“The doctor closed me up and went and told my wife that if he tried to operate, I would most likely bleed to death right there on the operating table,” McDermott said.
Instead, a series of radiation treatments was scheduled. After eight weeks and 41 treatments, the cancer was essentially gone. A test of his PSA levels revealed that McDermott’s pre-operative number of 5.1 had been reduced to .01. The very cancer that had just taken his father would not take him.
Fast forward 15 years later. In July 2017, McDermott began experiencing a constant sore throat.
“I thought I had a cold or something like that, but it just wouldn’t go away,” he said.
A visit to a doctor didn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary. A visit to the dentist revealed nothing. McDermott was referred to ear, nose, and throat specialist Dr. Raymond Aldridge. Aldridge prescribed McDermott a 10-day treatment of antibiotics for what he thought was blocked saliva glands.
When that didn’t work, Aldridge decided to perform a laproscopic procedure on McDermott, running the light down his throat. That’s when the cause of McDermott’s sore throat was discovered.
“He found a tumor the size of a chicken egg on the very back of my tongue,” McDermott said.
Aldridge performed a biopsy of the tumor.It was determined to be malignant, and it had also spread to McDermott’s tonsil. It was stage four cancer. Fifteen years after dodging a huge bullet, here McDermott was fighting once again.
He needed to undergo treatment immediately if there were any chance of saving him. That’s when Aldridge called the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville to get McDermott into surgery right away. Initially, McDermott was told that it would be four weeks before he could be scheduled for surgery.
“Dr. Aldridge told them that I didn’t have four weeks,” McDermott said.
Fortunately, Aldridge knew a doctor at Mayo who happened to be a friend and was an oncologist. McDermott was able to be seen right away.
“The doctor examined me and told me that my tumor was too big to do surgery,” McDermott said.
Just as he had been forced to do with his prostate cancer treatment, McDermott underwent an aggressive treatment plan consisting of radiation and chemotherapy. But, there was more bad news.
“The doctor told me that the radiation would kill my saliva glands and that the chemo would blister the inside of my mouth where I had fillings,” McDermott said.
Before Ken could begin the grueling treatment plan, he was first forced to have his teeth removed.
“I went to a dental practice in Jacksonville where they pulled every single tooth in my head,” McDermott said. “It took about four hours, and it was awful.”
He then waited two weeks to allow his gums to heal before the chemo and radiation began. McDermott and his wife stayed at the Gabriel House on the campus of the Mayo Clinic. It offers free- to low-cost housing for patients who have long-term treatments scheduled at the clinic. McDermott’s treatments were scheduled to last seven weeks, and it took a toll on him physically.
“I went from 230 pounds to 150 pounds in just seven weeks,” McDermott said.
After weeks of chemo and radiation treatments, he was to the point that he couldn’t take it anymore.
“I was on my way to have my seventh chemo treatment, and I told the doctor that I didn’t think I could survive another treatment,” he said.
He called his brother to come take him home.
“I told them that if I was going to die, I wanted to die at my home instead of in the hospital,” McDermott said. “That was the lowest day of my life. I felt like if I closed my eyes, I wasn’t going to wake up.”
About a month later, McDermott went for a full body scan to see what progress had been made.
“The oncologist told me, ‘Ken, your tumor is gone,'” McDermott said.
Just to make sure, Aldridge went down McDermott’s throat with the light, and sure enough he confirmed what the body scan had revealed. The tumor was indeed gone, but it had left its mark on McDermott.
“Dr. Aldridge told me that I had a huge indention in my tongue where the tumor had been,” McDermott said.
He had done it. He had beaten the dreaded C not just once, but twice, and he did it the hardest way possible.
Written by: Phil Jones | Photography by: Brandon Pham