Jason Mendelsohn was taking a written exam on financial securities for his career when he “put my hand on my face to ponder a question.”
The Washington native felt a small bump on the side of his neck and called the doctor soon after successfully completing the test. Within a short time, Mendelsohn learned he had squamous cell carcinoma, stage four, an HPV-related tonsil cancer, which had spread to two lymph nodes.
“It’s transmitted normally through oral sex. The doctor said I probably got the virus in my 20s while in college,” said Mendelsohn, who was 44 and the father of three children in 2014 when he received the diagnosis.
Mendelsohn had surgery to remove 42 lymph nodes, followed by seven weeks of chemotherapy and radiation which resulted in third-degree burns in his throat. A feeding tube was inserted into his stomach. Meanwhile, he said, he “choked and gagged” on his own saliva 15 to 20 times a day.
As if his medical problems weren’t enough, Mendelsohn also had to gather his courage to let his family know what was happening. “We are a very close family. My brother is my next-door neighbor,” and his parents and sister live five minutes away, he said, adding, “It was devastating to tell my father.”
His concerns also turned to his 14-year old twins and 8-year-old; he created a video for them, in case he did not live to watch them grow up, like Michael Keaton’s character in the film My Life.
But Mendelsohn survived the surgery and rigorous treatment that followed, and his only health problems now revolve around having “50 percent less saliva” than normal and tingling in “both knees to the toes and hands,” due to the chemotherapy, both of which should subside, he said.
“I am good, fully good,” said the president of Ashar Group, a firm specializing in life insurance valuation.
This weekend, Mendelsohn will be pedaling 140 miles with the Ride to Conquer Cancer bike ride in the Washington area. He also will speak at the opening ceremony Sept. 19.
Mendelsohn has raised more than $22,000. Money collected from the ride benefits Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore, Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, Suburban Hospital in Bethesda and Howard County General Hospital.
Last year’s ride raised more than $2.6 million for a variety of cancer treatments and awareness programs.
While he’s excited to be a part of the Ride to Conquer Cancer, “This is not about the money, but rather about saving kids from one day suffering my like family did last year.”
Mendelsohn, who now lives in Florida, is acutely aware that if he had a series of three injections when he was young, he probably wouldn’t have developed a human papillomavirus (HPV)-related cancer.
HPV is a group of 200 related viruses, about one-fifth of which are transmitted through direct sexual contact, traveling from the skin and mucous membranes of infected people to the skin and mucous membranes of their partners, according to the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States, according to the NCI. About 14 million new genital HPV infections occur annually; most result only in skin warts.
But a high-risk version of the infection can result in cervical and anal cancers; cancers of the middle part of the throat, the base of the tongue and the tonsils; vaginal cancer and penile cancer, according to the NCI.
There are three HPV vaccines approved by the Federal Drug Administration to prevent HPV infections, said Aimée R. Kreimer, an investigator with the NCI’s division of cancer epidemiology and genetics in Rockville.
These vaccinations, given as a series of three injections over six months, are recommended for boys and girls when they are 11 or 12 years old, before they become sexually active, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The reason it is given at that young age, Kreimer said is because “the vaccine is most effective when given before a first exposure to the virus.” The vaccines do not treat the infection.
The “vaccine has been extensively tested and is proven safe and effective,” she added.
Karen Feinstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation in Pittsburgh, said her organization has made it a priority to make more parents and doctors aware of the importance of the vaccines.
HPV viruses cause cancer, infertility and sometimes even death, and this vaccination can prevent much of that, she said, adding “There is no reason not to get it.” The vaccinations are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
There are several reasons why young people aren’t getting the vaccine, she said. Because “it hasn’t been given a lot of publicity,” parents don’t always know to ask the pediatrician for it, she said. That is why JHF is urging pediatricians to automatically tell parents of preteens about the vaccine, she said.
Also, some parents may be reluctant to talk about their young child’s impending sexual activity, she said.
To Feinstein, HPV vaccines “should just be standard.”