Bonding through cancer treatment: Three friends bridge generations

Nick Morrison, Paul Dublino and David Peek (from left) stand in front of the Victory Bell.

For many people, a cancer diagnosis can be a very lonely time. Who do you turn to talk about your fears, anxieties and experiences if no one close to you has faced cancer?

Nick Morrison, Paul Dublino and David Peek were strangers when they were diagnosed with cancers.  But they quickly formed a bond, seeing each other five days a week for five weeks as they were each treated for an oral cancer by Anurag Singh, MD, Director of Radiation Research and the Head & Neck and Lymphoma Radiation Services at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Nick was the first one diagnosed, learning in November 2021 he had adenoid cystic carcinoma. His mother had noticed a lump on the back of his neck that ended up being a cancerous cyst, wrapped around a nerve in his face. He had to have a full parotidectomy to have the mass removed from his parotid gland, the largest salivary gland in his neck. He also needed a titanium plate in his eyelid to help him blink again. After recovering from surgery, he was scheduled to begin radiation treatment with Dr. Singh.

That’s where Nick met Paul, who was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in a lymph node in May 2022 after initially seeing his primary care doctor for a pre-physical for a kidney stone procedure. A physician assistant noticed a lump on Paul’s throat and ordered a needle biopsy to get it checked out. As Paul entered his doctor’s office to learn the test results, his phone rang with a call from Roswell Park, asking him to come in immediately. Paul had been receiving radiation therapy for a few weeks when Nick began his sessions.

Dave joined the group a little later, in June 2022, after a new primary care doctor asked him about a swollen lymph node. After some inconclusive tests, he went to see a specialist, who ordered bloodwork, but that failed to provide any answers. In the hopes of getting to the bottom of things, Dave, too, was sent to Roswell Park and diagnosed there with an HPV-related oral cancer.

The power of friendship

Paul, Nick and Dave were in the same waiting room, eventually recognizing each other each morning, for several weeks. They started with a nod, progressing to exchanging hellos before talking to each other about their treatment.

Paul previously developed a friendship with another patient with whom he shared stories. “He was telling me what he was really going through and what it was like,” Paul says. “The doctors tell you what to expect, but to hear it from someone who’s really going through it made a difference.”

Paul started radiation two weeks before Nick did, and Dave started two weeks later. “Everything I was told, I passed down to Dave. He got anything Paul and I could give him. We started having normal conversations in the lobby while waiting our turns,” Nick says. With more than 30 treatments each, they spent a lot of time together.

They compared side effects from treatment — how to deal with dry mouth (carbonation is off limits for Paul but it helps Dave swallow), how to handle excessive phlegm, what foods are best (Paul and Nick swear by instant ramen), which types of nutritional drinks are best. They warned each other about which medications were causing discomfort or nausea and which left them feeling less awful.

Support groups at Roswell Park

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Dave and Paul, along with Dave’s wife Kerry Peek and Paul’s partner Elaine Kearney, might be decades older than Nick, but they all viewed him as “a ray of sunshine,” Kerry says. “It was a matter of giving the other guys that kind of push, like, don’t worry, we’re going to get through it. He’s half their age, he’s got that energy in him. I kept thinking, ‘Wow, if he can get through all of this, everybody can do it.’”

“Our ladies got to talk more than we did because we’d be in a conversation and then I’d get called in,” Paul recalls. His appointment would be the group’s first of the day, followed by Nick a few minutes later and then Dave finishing up the trio.

“Even after treatment, we would stick around and talk to each other a little bit,” Nick says. “It’s all genuine.”

“You create a bond,” Dave adds.

Support from those who know

They all spoke very highly of Dr. Singh and Kelsey Smith, his physician assistant, for their encouragement and support. But Dr. Singh and Kelsey echo their admiration for the unlikely friends.

“The great privilege of treating cancer patients is the constant reminder of the things that are truly important in life. In a hectic world, too often we take our health and relationships for granted,” Dr. Singh says. “Yet, in adverse circumstances like treatment for cancer, here are three people who battled to regain their health and built relationships with each other that helped them in the process.

“I am honored to have been a part of their journey. They inspire me to nurture and value health and relationships.”

Kelsey might have been a source of tough love for the men, but she was inspired by their friendship. “Cancer has a funny way of changing your life and, without cancer, it is unlikely they would have ever developed such a close friendship,” she says. “As a provider, we are able to offer patient guidance based off of past patient experience and their own, as well as from literature and data. But nothing can truly compare to having another person or friend going through a similar treatment who can relate to the symptoms and offer advice and support. Even during bad times, these guys made sure to lift each other up and fill the waiting room with positivity and laughter which is definitely not something we often hear in our waiting room.”

Thanks to their special bond and close friendship, each time one of them were given the OK to ring the Victory Bell in the main lobby, they gathered together to celebrate.

They’re not done cheering each other on: When Dave is feeling stronger, and is better able to enjoy solid foods, they have their sights set on a celebratory dinner at Russell’s Steaks, Chops & More.

Together, of course.

Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.