HeadLines - A Gift for Head and Neck Cancer Survivors
A Gift for Head and Neck Cancer Survivors
Peter Rieker was always thinking of other people, says his wife of 27 years, Bridget. He was first diagnosed with cancer in 2003, and after treatment, he was right back to work at his job at Susquehanna Bank—the only place he’d ever worked his entire 44-year-long career—so none of his customers or co-workers would be inconvenienced. When his cancer resurfaced seven years later, and Peter had multiple operations with head and neck surgeons Ralph Tufano and Kofi Boahene, he always consented for Johns Hopkins medical students to shadow his doctors during his care so they could learn from his case.
“He always wanted to help,” Bridget says.
As his cancer progressed, Peter was even more determined that his experiences would make life easier for other people. That’s why he and Bridget, along with those who cared for him in Johns Hopkins’ Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery and Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, started the Survivorship Program for Head and Neck Cancer patients.
Bridget says she and Peter were woefully unprepared for the array of challenges head and neck cancer patients face: often large, visible and very painful wounds, drains that need cleaning, a mouth that doesn’t work the way it did before surgery.
“We were probably the most squeamish people you would ever meet. We would gag at changing our children’s diapers,” says Bridget.
But Peter’s cancer changed everything. “We managed to do things,” she says, “that neither of us ever thought possible.”
That’s why during his years of treatment at Johns Hopkins—through several major surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy and countless doctor appointments—Peter, along with his nurse, Laurie Turner, the Head and Neck Cancer Multidisciplinary Program’s coordinator, Amy Brady, his speech-language pathologist Heather Starmer, and colleagues in the Cancer Center came up with a way to help patients and families get the education and training they need to cope with a new way of life after head and neck cancer diagnosis and treatment.
The Survivorship Program provides a variety of services to help those with head and neck cancer, their families and their caretakers learn how to live with this disease. For example, it supports an annual patient education day, in which patients and anyone else who’s interested can attend lectures from Johns Hopkins physicians about advances in care and the latest research. The program also helps provide materials to educate newly diagnosed patients, including a book about head and neck cancer that caregivers in the Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery wrote several years ago. The Survivorship Program will also eventually help patients through web-based education and videos.
“As cancer care has gotten better and more patients are living longer,” Starmer says, “there’s been a bigger focus on quality of life. That concept includes everything from prevention and early detection to symptom management to follow-up care. We want to help patients every step of the way, but those efforts need funding.”
That’s something Peter understood, even as he was losing his own battle with cancer, Bridget says. He planned for his obituary to request donations to the Survivorship Program in lieu of flowers. His foresight, along with a personal gift from Peter and his family, including his two sons Tim and Danny, has thus far brought in nearly $10,000 since his death in August 2013.
“Everything we have,” says Starmer, “we owe to Peter.”