Linda Rathbun: Kicking Head and Neck Cancer Like a Boss

“I tell people if you are going on this journey, you should not compare yourself to anyone else. Every cancer is different, and every person’s situation is different.”
‐Linda Rathbun

Throughout my life, I have always had a wonderful relationship with animals and an active lifestyle. I live in the Lehigh Valley and previously owned and operated a boarding, grooming, and training facility, previously trained police service dogs, and have also been an avid equestrian for years. Even now, I still take dressage riding lessons and my husband and I have three dogs and a cat.

Startling Symptoms

I had always been able to handle the physical demands of my jobs and hobbies, but over the years, I started to experience some annoying symptoms: coughing, acid reflux, and weird sensations in my throat. I saw many doctors to try to get my symptoms under control and figure out what was causing them. I started feeling tired and had trouble chewing food as well, but no one could tell me what the exact problem was.

After getting work done for a cracked crown and tooth, I felt like I had a horrible cold and thought it might be from an abscess in my mouth. I also had a lump near the bottom of my ear on my neck. My dentist was away, so I went to a trusted ear, nose, and throat doctor. He sent me for an MRI, and when the results came back, I was surprised to learn I had stage IV squamous cell carcinoma, a type of head and neck cancer.

After receiving my diagnosis, I was sent all around the area for biopsies and PET scans. My doctor didn’t seem to have a concrete plan for my care, and I was worried I was running out of time.

At the same time, my cousin’s wife was being treated at Fox Chase Cancer Center, so I decided to make an appointment to get a second opinion there. During my first visit, I met with medical oncologist Dr. Jessica Bauman, head and neck surgical oncologist Dr. John A. (Drew) Ridge, and radiation oncologist Dr. Thomas Galloway. While they agreed on my diagnosis, they did not agree with my first doctor’s treatment plan. They gave me their expert opinions and recommended that I undergo chemotherapy and radiation. I was overwhelmed, but I also felt like I was in good hands.

A Tough Treatment Regimen

My care plan involved seven weeks of treatment. I was scheduled to receive chemotherapy once a week and radiation five days a week.

Unfortunately, I had a really tough time during these treatments and experienced a lot of side effects. I had brain fog, high levels of pain, and trouble eating (which made it difficult to keep weight on). If my weight went too low, my doctor warned me that I would need to be given a feeding tube. I wanted to avoid that, and eventually found a few foods that I could eat comfortably (including canned ravioli, soft boiled eggs, and canned fruit). I normally follow a very healthy diet, so eating some of those items was difficult for me. But, it was a necessary change, and I was able to keep my weight up.

My mantra during my treatment was “kick it like a boss.” I knew I was not ready to die, and no matter how rough it got, I was determined to fight. I was still in treatment on my birthday, and my friend got me a birthday cake with “kick it like a boss” written on top! I loved it, but I couldn’t eat it at the time. Instead, I froze it to enjoy when I finished my treatments and started feeling better.

An Unexpected Hurdle

When I finally reached the end of my treatments, I slept for an entire weekend. My body had been through so much, but in the months that followed, I slowly started to feel better. I knew I was really making progress when I could resume my dressage riding lessons.

Just when I was starting to feel more like myself, my husband fell and suffered a traumatic brain injury. At first, things looked really bad, and for a while he was in a coma. Then, things started to turn around.

At that time, I had to balance visiting him in the hospital, taking care of our pets, and also going for follow-up appointments at Fox Chase. If it weren’t for my support system of friends and family, and the continued support of my care team, I do not know how I would have gotten through it.

After months of hard work and rehabilitation, my husband made a miraculous recovery. He is walking and talking now, and I am too. When I was first diagnosed with my cancer, I learned that I was not a candidate for surgery because of its size and location. To remove it would have meant losing my speech and permanently using a feeding tube. Thankfully, the chemotherapy and radiation treatments allowed me to avoid surgical treatment. A year after my previous birthday, I was able to defrost my “kick it like a boss” cake and eat a slice of it. It was a huge accomplishment!

A New Lease on Life

These days, I have a little less on my plate, and I try to make the most of every minute. I have been able to resume my dressage riding lessons, and I continue to be an animal rescue advocate.

I have regular appointments at Fox Chase, and my care team is always on top of things. When I recently developed a suspicious area, my care team quickly mobilized and made sure that I wasn’t dealing with a recurrence. I am well looked after by my Fox Chase physicians, and I know they are always in my corner.

Fox Chase really took my care seriously and found what worked for me. That’s why the long commute to their main campus never bothered me—I always knew I was in the best hands. I tell people if you are going on this journey, you should not compare yourself to anyone else. Every cancer is different, and every person’s situation is different. Whatever you are facing, try to kick it like a boss!

Learn more about head and neck cancer treatment at Fox Chase