Cancer Never Crossed My Mind

Written by Teresa Dennard.

Denny Jernigan was lucky

When we’re young, most of us tend to live in the moment with little regard for what the future holds. We take the “won’t happen to me” theory and live life as though we’re infallible.  But then we reach the age where everything starts “falling apart” and we wonder why we didn’t take better care of ourselves when we were younger. That could be said of Denny Jernigan. He started dipping tobacco in his twenties. He loved it and his family hated it. His wife Debbie, and their two daughters, Denise and Amy, stayed after him to quit. It was an addiction that took hold of him and wouldn’t let go.

It was Thanksgiving, 2012, and Denny and Debbie were going to spend the holidays in Dallas with their girls. Denny was shaving and noticed a knot on his throat. “I made a mental note to myself that when I got back from Dallas, I’d go to the doctor and have it checked out,” recalls Denny. “Cancer never crossed my mind.” While in Dallas, he came down with flu-like symptoms. After his return on Monday, he went to his doctor in Longview and was given a shot and an antibiotic. The doctor thought the knot was just inflammation from the flu symptoms. The next week Denny had no energy and felt horrible. “I was on the computer and I felt something in my chest I had never felt before. I called Debbie and told her, then called my sister, who is a retired nurse, and told her.” Back to Longview they went. Tests were run but they showed no signs of any heart problems. The doctor thought it would be a good idea to have an ENT check out the knot on Denny’s neck while he was there. A biopsy was done and Denny was sent home right before Christmas to wait on the results. When the call came, it was not good news—squamous cell carcinoma.

He was sent to Texas Oncology for a biopsy on his tongue and was assigned to two doctors, one for radiation, one for chemo. Before he could start any treatment he had to have four molars removed, two on each side. Next a chemo port and a feeding tube were installed. “Doctors said I would have a sore throat like I’d never had before. They did not lie. The radiation doctor scared me when he said they used to cut out half the tongue with this type cancer. I was glad they improved their treatment methods.” Denny had quit dipping snuff two years prior to this, but the damage had been done. The doctors said he probably had the cancer for a year because it was a slow growing type. Denny started treatments in February. He went Monday through Friday for 35 radiation treatments wearing a mask that was made specifically for his face. During that time span he also had 3 chemo treatments that lasted 6 hours each. He couldn’t drive so his sister, Pat Moon, drove him each day.

After a week of radiation he started with the feeding tube because it was too painful to eat. Pat and Debbie worked out a feeding schedule every four hours that made sure Denny was getting enough calories and protein to keep him from losing a lot of weight. It hurt to brush his teeth; his gums would bleed and inside his mouth felt really strange (still does). Not long after the onset of radiation, a loud ringing occurred in his ears. Noises really bothered him and he now has to wear hearing aids. “I would think I had it bad, but I ‘d look around in the cancer center and see people a lot worse than myself. I’m so thankful there was a quality place to go to in Longview because I did not want to go to Houston. I have to pace myself and rest whenever I do anything. I tire pretty easily and have no stamina.” Denny has had two PET scans that have been clear. He encourages people to go see a doctor if there’s something going on that doesn’t feel right. Most guys are a little stubborn about that. Recently, Denny ran into a person he met while doing treatments and asked him if he worried about the cancer coming back. He told him, “every day.”

“I’m not the same and won’t ever be the same. I’ve been dealt a hand…part of it I dealt myself, but I’m above ground. I was lucky.”

The 2014 Panola County Relay for Life event is Friday, May 2, at the Carthage Civic Center. A Survivor’s dinner starts at 5:30pm for all registered survivors and their spouse, family member or friend. The Survivor Lap kicks off the opening ceremonies at 7:00pm and the Luminaria ceremony begins at 9:00pm.  Between those times various Relay teams will sell food, candy, raffle tickets, products, all to raise money for the Relay for Life event. Monies collected will go to the American Cancer Society and a portion of what is raised stays in Panola County. Relay Chairman Tracy Anderson says, “This event is FOR our community and we want everyone to come out and enjoy it. The teams that register compete in fun and family friendly activities. For those that stay all night, it is a physical challenge, but we encourage people to do what they can and have a good time. Come out and help us “Finish the Fight” against cancer.” For more information, 903.692.0885