Diz Howard: Getting His Life Back

Dale “Diz” Howard was a hard-riding, hard-working truck driver and Harley Davidson enthusiast. “I was a 280-pound, short-winded tough guy,” recalls the Vietnam veteran who ran a successful trucking business in Dayton, Ohio. Although he toted multiple tattoos and at one point hung out with the Outlaw motorcycle group, he also had a softer side, singing in the church choir, playing the guitar and piano, and attending his nephew’s football games, where he met his wife, Jill.

Although Diz was a nonsmoker, for years he had been short of breath and had also been experiencing acid reflux and related hoarseness resulting from his excess weight, according to his physician. Then came October 4, 2010: “I was doing my job and suddenly could not breathe,” he recalls. After many referrals and tests, “Doctors found stage 3, borderline stage 4 laryngeal cancer” believed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange during his service in Vietnam. They removed a mass from his throat, and Diz endured a round of chemotherapy and radiation. The effects were devastating: Along with being unable to speak and needing an IV bag for sustenance, “I was down to 111 pounds and sleeping 22 hours a day. I could barely get out of my chair.”

“He kept dropping weight and I was terrified,” adds Jill. But rather than stand by and watch her husband die, she turned to the Internet and started doing research on treatment options, coming across the website for The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James). “Until then I didn’t even know The James existed.” But Jill was desperate, so she picked up the phone.

“Words cannot convey my deep appreciation for the woman who answered,” continues Diz. As a result of the conversation, Diz and Jill arranged a consultation at the OSUCCC – James. That was the first breath of hope they’d had since his initial diagnosis 18 months prior.

When Diz and Jill had their initial meeting with their otolaryngologist, Amit Agrawal, MD, in April 2011, “I got a sense of calm from him and immediately trusted him,” says Diz. Though Agrawal “gave me no guarantees that I would talk again or even survive, I told him, ‘You do what you do and I’ll fight like hell to beat this.’”

The surgery, which reconstructed Diz’s larynx (voice box) and created a permanent hole in his throat so he could talk and breathe properly, took 11½ hours and required several skin grafts, one of which involved a colorfully worded tattoo. “It’s now a part of my throat,” chuckles Diz, who does speak quite well these days and wears the tattoo on his neck as a badge of honor. Agrawal also located and removed another cancerous mass. “I am now cancer-free thanks to the team at The James.” He’s also a healthy 184 pounds and can bench press as much as he did when he was at his heaviest.

Although he has hardly traded in his beloved Harleys for a bicycle, Diz participated in Pelotonia 12, riding 25 miles. He plans on going even farther during Pelotonia 13. “What a great way to get in shape, show appreciation and give something back,” he enthuses. And, along with proudly showing his photos as a featured speaker at the November 2012 James Ambassadors Society reception, he is quick to acknowledge gratitude for Agrawal and the team at the OSUCCC – James, as well as OSUCCC Director and James CEO Michael A. Caligiuri, MD.

“I only wish I had known about The James earlier – it would have made recovery so much easier.” Some people attend Ohio State to get an education. “I went there to get back my life.”

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