Health Awareness

Finding yourself after surviving head and neck cancer


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Head and neck cancer will impact not only someone’s health, but also someone’s sense of self. Paolo Berti survived head and neck cancer caused by the papillomavirus. In two years time, three tumors had to be removed. For the first tumor they used chemoradiotherapy, for the second a lymph node dissection and for the third tumor he had to undergo robotic surgery. Paolo shares his story about the way the disease has changed his life.

Something we need to talk about

It is pretty well known that the papillomavirus can cause severe diseases such as cervical cancer. It is less well known that it can also seriously affect men and cause diseases such as head and neck cancer.

“When you receive the diagnosis, you can’t help but ask yourself ‘why me?’. You don’t understand why this is happening to you. Being a non-smoker and a non-drinker, it took the doctors more than a year to determine that the disease was caused by the papillomavirus. That’s why it’s very important to me to talk about the ways in which this virus can affect men.”

Rebuilding life as a cancer survivor

The treatment of the head and neck cancer had a big effect on the way Paolo speaks. It is more difficult to understand him, which impacts both his personal and his professional relations.

“I was a salesman, I was often on the road. It was easy for me to talk to people. I was a communicative person. But now, unfortunately, communicating is not easy for me. My speech is not very clear, I am not easy to understand. Sometimes this can hold me back.

My friends and family know me, so it’s not an issue for them, but it’s hard when you have to ask for information on the phone or when you have to present yourself for work. Those moments are very difficult.

Accepting what happened

After the diagnosis and the treatment, Paolo was left feeling unhinged. The life he had known before was gone. He had to rediscover who he was and what was important to him.

“The most difficult part is accepting what happened and to find a new drive. Both physically and mentally, the recovery was very difficult. I lost 22 kg and had to rebuild a lot of muscle mass. And I had some trouble mentally, because many of the things that I did before are now no longer possible. Everything that you worked for the past 48 years, your studies, your career … just like that it’s gone.

You have to find yourself again. At the beginning it was very hard. But I have adopted two dogs and I often go on walks with them. Slowly, I am finding myself again. It was hard at first, but now I can manage.

Confucius once said: ‘you only have two lives and the second one begins once you realize that you only have one.’ To me, this means that you really have to enjoy every moment, because you never know what tomorrow will bring.”