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Back in the Game After Salivary Gland Cancer

August 13, 2019

James “Hooty” Wade’s whole world had been turned inside out by a little hard knot that wouldn’t go away, just behind his left earlobe. When his nurse educator mother wasn’t comfortable with the diagnosis of a blocked lymph node, a second physician surgically removed the lump. He sent it to the lab, telling the Wades there was little cause for concern.

“In less than a week, we went from, ‘It’s probably nothing,’ to, ‘Your son has cancer,’” recalls Eric Wade, Hooty's dad. “When you hear that, the bottom drops out of your world.”

Hooty had parotid cancer, or cancer of the salivary gland. The condition accounts for less than 1% of newly diagnosed cancers each year. At 17, his age made his case even more rare; average age at diagnosis is 64.

Specialist in head and neck cancers

Seeking a specialist in rare cancers, the Wades turned to The University of Kansas Cancer Center. Physician-in-chief Terance Tsue, MD, is a nationally recognized expert in head and neck cancers. He removed the affected tissues surrounding Hooty’s cancer site in a 6-hour surgery.

“I’d been thinking that this was no big deal,” says Hooty. “But then I missed a month of school. When I returned, suddenly I was trying to fit 33 radiation treatments into my schedule of classes, homework and baseball practice. So I gave up playing ball, which was tough.”

Dad quits tobacco cold turkey

This pivotal family experience especially affected Eric, who kicked his daily habit of chewing tobacco – cold turkey. He had chewed for more than 20 years and suddenly his teenage son, who never touched tobacco, had cancer.

“I took it as a sign. After going through this with Hooty, I was just done chewing,” Eric says. “Done.”

Family wakeup call

“Hooty’s cancer changed our family for the good,” shares Eric. They returned to church and baptized their 3 boys. They shifted their priorities from material goods to health and happiness.

“Baseball had been everything. I’d coached Hooty since he was 4, and pushed him hard,” Eric admits. “After this, I didn’t care if he ever played another inning. I just wanted him with us and healthy.”

Hooty went on to earn a baseball scholarship to Ottawa University. He graduated with a degree in exercise science with an emphasis in personal training.

Finding support

Along the way, he met Dorothy Austin, RN, one of the cancer center’s 30 disease-specific nurse navigators. She encouraged the Wades to become active in the head and neck cancer support group. Hooty and his family organized Swing for the Cure, a youth baseball tournament to benefit the cancer center.

At 23 and cancer-free for 6 years, Hooty shares his story with student athletes and other groups. And he’s still in the game, catching in the bullpen for the Kansas City T-Bones for the second season.

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