Though George Hyams is a sucker for an exotic plant, he has thick skin. He’d have to, since he was one of the first football players at Clemson University to major in horticulture.
Asked if he got grief as a football player choosing that kind of major, he nods and laughs. After a pause, he adds, “Not now.”
Not now is right since he runs Hyams Garden and Accent Store, a successful nursery on James Island often swamped by gardeners roaming aisles of plants and accessories. Hyams has owned the business since the early ‘80s and doesn’t regret the choice. His father, a pathologist, was a doctor, and Hyams did consider medicine. “I don’t know why I didn’t get his brains, but I got his looks,” he says, grinning. He also got his mother’s love of gardening and being outdoors.
In 2015, Hyams noticed a weird lump on the side of his throat. He finally decided to get it checked out. “I had a big tumor inside my throat, but what I was feeling were my lymph nodes. It had spread to my lymph nodes. It had been there for a while, but I just didn’t know. I didn’t want to know.”
The diagnosis was an HPV-related throat cancer. An estimated 70 percent of cancers in the oropharynx (which includes the tonsils, soft palate and base of the tongue) are linked to human papillomavirus (HPV). Hyams learned he would have to have two surgeries. “Once they find a cancer, they move pretty darn fast.”
The first step was to undergo robotic surgery to remove the tumor. “It was a little scary, but it cut a perfect tumor hole in my throat – just like an ice cream scoop – and popped that sucker right out of there. In your throat is the worst place to have something messed with. I had to have a feeding tube for a while.”
His oncology surgeon was Terry Day, a specialist in head and neck cancers at Hollings Cancer Center at MUSC Health. He also worked with medical oncologist Paul O’Brien and radiation oncologist Anand Sharma.
“What a great group to work with. Dr. Day used to call me and text me from wherever he was through the whole deal – that was just very nice,” he says. “They are some of the best in the nation, and it’s nice to have them in our backyard. I was able to stay near my business, family, friends and home.”
That was important as his cancer required several procedures. Doctors found they needed to remove 12 lymph nodes. “Luckily, they didn’t tell me I had stage 4 cancer until it was over. Just the cancer word alone is enough to scare you to death but to learn you’re in the worst stage you can be in, that would have been even scarier.”
Then Hyams faced 36 radiation treatments and three rounds of chemotherapy. The worst part was not being able to swallow and the feeding tube he had to have, he says. “I lost 50 pounds, and I’ve only regained 30. It’s still hard to eat. It’s all good because I can learn to swallow and eat soup. That’s not a big deal now. My problem was my wife was cooking all this great stuff for me – the pastas and all. She’s gaining weight, and I’m not.”
Hyams, now 63 and back to his thriving gardening business, says he took the cancer diagnosis in stride.
“I never said why me, and I never worried about not recovering. I just said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s get it over with because I have a lot to do.’ I was able to come to work during treatment and kind of keep an eye on things. I wasn’t able to stay that long.”
Hyams finished his treatment by October, 2015. It destroyed his thyroid, so he doesn’t have any saliva. He’s gotten his energy back and enjoys his trimmer build. “It’s a lot less wear and tear on my joints losing that weight.”
He doesn’t mind sharing his story because he wants to raise awareness about head and neck cancers and the importance of the HPV vaccines for pre-adolescents. Oddly, three of his Clemson classmates, including two football players, had the same type of cancer just before he got his diagnosis. “It was nice for them to be able to call and tell me what was going on and what to expect. It was good to hear they were doing well.”
Hyams, a grandfather of three, was surprised to find out his cancer was related to the HPV. “I think everyone has been exposed to it. I’ve made sure all my children and grandchildren have gotten what vaccines they’ve needed to get. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. They’re crazy not to get it. If we had known then what we know now, I would have.”
Another lesson he learned was how important it was to have a good attitude. His radiation oncologist made him take advantage of the psychological consultation services the cancer center has, especially given his weight loss. “I think it helped. I knew I was going to get well, and I just had to hang in there,” he says.
It’s another reason he shares his story so he can encourage others. “Once you’ve had cancer, there’s no holding back. You don’t play. There’s so many people who have had cancer, you don’t have to hold back. They know, and you know what it’s like. It’s a shame you have to go through that to realize certain things about life.”
Having cancer has changed him, he reflects.
“Every day is great. I used to get stressed out with 15 employees, and all the crap that goes with that, but I just don’t worry about that anymore. There are so many things that you have no control over at all that you worry so much about.”
The one exception is his yard.
“There’s a lot of pressure on me in the neighborhood to have a nice yard,” he says, grinning.
Did you Know?
- Alcohol and tobacco are major risk factors for cancers of the head and neck.
- About 70% of cancers in the oropharynx (which includes the tonsils, soft palate and base of the tongue) are linked to HPV.
- It is estimated that about 3,400 new cases of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed in women and about 14,800 are diagnosed in men each year in the United States.*
*These numbers are based on cancers in specific areas of the oropharynx and do not include cancers in all areas of the head and neck or oral cavity.
Sources: Center for Disease Control, Head and Neck, Hollings Cancer Center