Michael Becker had always wanted to write a memoir. He had an interesting life story — especially his journey from Wall Street to biotechnology executive — but still, he wondered: Would anyone really care?
Then, at age 47, Michael was diagnosed with stage IV cancer of the back of the throat. Suddenly, putting his story to paper became a lot more urgent.
Although Michael had spent his biotechnology career focusing on cancer, nothing could have fully prepared him for his own diagnosis. He first realized something was wrong when, on the day before Thanksgiving in 2015, he caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror — there was an odd protrusion on his neck he had never noticed before.
“It wasn’t painful to the touch, which probably made me the most alarmed because I thought that if it was inflammation or something like that, it would be tender, it would be sore, it would be warm to the touch — it was none of that,” he told HealthCentral in a phone interview.
Like many people would, Michael went straight to Google. But even before doing the research, he was fairly certain: The solid mass on the side of his neck had to be cancer.
Michael went to the doctor that same day, but found his family physician’s response to be dismissive. He was sent home with antibiotics for a blocked salivary gland. If it didn’t improve in a week, he was to follow up with an ear, nose, and throat doctor.
“Sure enough, that was what I ended up doing, because there was no change in the mass after the antibiotics,” Michael said. “They did a biopsy and confirmed it was squamous cell carcinoma, and it was HPV positive.”
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is incredibly common — about 14 million people are infected with the virus each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While the body clears HPV on its own in most cases, in others, it can lead to health problems, including cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or back of the throat (also called the oropharynx).
While rates of HPV-related cervical cancers have been declining over time, rates of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers have been increasing, especially in men.
After Michael received his diagnosis of stage IV oropharyngeal cancer, he learned as much as he could about the virus that had caused it. Once he realized how many people were still missing out on the HPV vaccine that could prevent these cancers, his mission became clear: Raise awareness.
Now, that memoir he had always wanted to write had a greater purpose. Through telling his own story, he could educate others about HPV-related cancers and the importance of the HPV vaccine in preventing them.
Motivated by the urgency of his health situation, Michael wrote the book in a matter of months in early 2017, pulling in segments from his blog, where he has been documenting his journey with cancer since his initial diagnosis. By the end of April 2017, A Walk With Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur was published.
“I thought if I could do one good thing, it would be to write the book, create awareness about HPV, get more people to vaccinate their children, and hopefully eradicate this disease,” Michael said. “We have not just one but two different vaccines on the market that can eradicate six different types of cancers, and only about 17-18 percent of the population gets it — and that’s just a travesty.”
“Had they been around when I was a teenager, I probably wouldn’t have cancer right now,” he said.
The CDC currently recommends that children ages 11-12 receive the two-dose HPV vaccine, but older patients also may receive catch-up vaccines. The latest version of the vaccine, Gardasil 9, covers nine types of HPV, including HPV type 16, which is associated with more than half of oropharyngeal cancers in the U.S. — including Michael’s. A June 2017 study of almost 3,000 young adults in the U.S. found that getting at least one dose of the HPV vaccine reduced infection by 88 percent.
“I think anytime you’re faced with a terminal illness, the question becomes: What did I do with my life? What’s the mark that I left on this earth?” Michael said. “All I have to do is convince people to get a vaccine that’s on the market right now. So my legacy is really quite simple: It’s education and awareness. I feel like I’ve got kind of a leg up in that regard.”
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Lara is a digital editor for HealthCentral. She is the site’s staff writer, Sexual Health editor, and email newsletter chief. Previously, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs, where she became obsessed with learning about women’s health, and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com. Connect with her on Twitter @laradesanto.