(Above) – With his teammates letting him take the lead, Jason Mendelsohn crosses the finish line in the Ride to Conquer Cancer in Washington, D.C., in early September.

HPV can lurk for decades before causing no-symptom oral cancer

When Jason Mendelsohn felt a bump on his throat last year, he immediately made an appointment with his doctor. After 10 days of antibiotics and steroids without seeing a change in the bump, Mendelsohn had a needle biopsy and was faced with something he never expected: Stage 4 tonsil cancer that had spread to two lymph nodes.

“I had no symptoms,” said Mendelsohn, 45, who leads a financial firm in the Orlando area. “Zero. I was taking a financial exam, put my hand on my face, moved it down to my neck and found a bump. Had I not felt that bump on my neck, my cancer would have spread throughout my whole body.”

Jason Mendelsohn raised $24,022 through last month’s bike ride.

Jason Mendelsohn raised $24,022 through last month’s bike ride.

Mendelsohn was terrified of succumbing to the cancer, leaving his wife of 19 years and their three children, who are regulars at Camp Barney Medintz. He immediately called his insurance agents to make sure his life insurance policy was on auto draft just in case he didn’t survive.

“I was scared to death,” he said. “Financially, I wasn’t worried about my family. But, I’ll tell you, it is heartbreaking to think about missing every aspect of your kids’ lives. The whole thing is just really overwhelming and exhausting. The good thing is that I’m not afraid of dying anymore.”

Within a few weeks of his diagnosis, Mendelsohn underwent a radical tonsillectomy and neck dissection during which 42 lymph nodes were removed from his neck. That was followed by seven weeks of chemotherapy, radiation and a feeding tube.

Now that he’s in remission, Mendelsohn has made it his goal to spread the word about tonsil cancer, which can be caused by the human papilloma virus. Doctors think Mendelsohn got the virus when he was a student at Emory University, where he graduated in 1990.

“They don’t think I just got this,” he said. “They think I had it. The face of oral cancer used to be a 75-year-old man that smoked. Now it’s men and women in their 20s who are athletic and got the virus.”

To promote his cause, Mendelsohn participated in the Ride to Conquer Cancer in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago. He rode with employees of AgencyOne, one of his clients, and when his team approached the finish line, his teammates let him cross first.

“They were just so appreciative and wonderful that it was a great experience from the beginning to the end,” Mendelsohn said.

He raised $24,022 for the ride, surpassing his goal of $20,000 and landing him in third place among all fundraisers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7 percent of Americans have oral HPV, but only 1 percent have the strain that causes cancer. Each year, around 8,400 people in the United States are diagnosed with oral cancer caused by HPV. The virus and cancer are more prevalent in men than in women.

Although HPV vaccines on the market, such as Gardasil, are geared toward other forms of the virus, the CDC says it is possible that they also will protect against oral cancers caused by the virus.

Mendelsohn is getting the word out about the vaccines in the hope that more parents will vaccinate their children. Boys and girls can be vaccinated against HPV starting at age 9.

“Every time I speak to people, they say, ‘I didn’t know the vaccine could be used for boys also,’ ” Mendelsohn said.

In addition to participating in the Ride to Conquer Cancer, Mendelsohn spoke at the ride’s opening ceremonies. He also talks to 200 people each month for work.

“They always say to me, ‘Jason, before you, I never knew anyone who had tonsil cancer from HPV,’ ” Mendelsohn said. “It’s been so interesting to me how much interest there is on a topic that’s kind of like an epidemic. Rather than be quiet about this, I thought, if I can stop someone from getting it, that would be a wonderful thing.”

You can get more information about oral cancer at www.oralcancer.org.