Get screened, says wife who lost her husband to neck cancer


In this article:

  • Providence Senior Vice President, Chief Philanthropy Officer Laurie Kelley lost her husband, Mike, to head and neck cancer in 2020. He hated going to the doctor, but Laurie believes that, if he had gone regularly, doctors might have caught the disease earlier, when it could have been better treated.

  • Laurie wants to share Mike’s story to inspire more people to get regular checkups and cancer screenings, which can help with prevention and early detection.

  • April is Head & Neck Cancer Awareness Month, an observance dedicated to educating people and raising awareness about the group of cancers that affect the head and neck.

Get screened, says wife who lost her husband to neck cancer

Michael “Mike” Kelley was one of those larger-than-life characters dedicated to leaving the earth a better place than he found it. He loved the 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and he loved babies, Christmas and basketball. In that order. But above all, he loved his family.

Originally from Spokane, Washington, Mike touched the lives of countless people in his adopted town of Portland, Oregon, where he and his wife, Laurie, raised their four children: Ross, Erin, Catherine and Caroline.

Although he was a successful trial attorney known for winning big, stressful cases at the 11th hour, Mike’s true love was coaching his kids’ sports teams. Laurie, senior vice president, chief philanthropy officer for Providence, estimates Mike coached between 35 to 40 youth sports teams over the years. Whether it was soccer, baseball or basketball, Mike coached them all. On the rare occasion he wasn’t coaching, he was in the stands. When his kids played, he never missed a game.

Mike also volunteered his time chairing the boards of two local high schools and serving on the boards of several other nonprofits. And that doesn’t include the countless times he quietly helped others, like anonymously paying the soccer club fees for a player who couldn’t afford it.

In fact, the only thing Laurie regrets from the 36 years she spent married to Mike is that he never went to the doctor. If he had regularly gone for checkups, screenings and dental appointments, she believes he’d still be alive today.

Making prevention a priority

Mike passed away on Oct. 11, 2020, at age 61, after a 22-month battle with advanced human papillomavirus (HPV)-associated head and neck cancer that had spread to his spine and lungs. He was diagnosed on Christmas Eve of 2018, finally going to the doctor with an intense cough that wouldn’t go away. Laurie noticed a mass on his neck but chalked it up to a swollen gland, possibly from an infection like pneumonia. He didn’t have any other symptoms that would have made them think it was something more serious.

Mike had always been athletic, playing basketball in college and even winning a couple national championships in an over-40 men’s league. That’s why Laurie says she never worried too much about his health. His parents had both lived long lives without going to the doctor, so she assumed Mike would, too. In retrospect, she says, his story is very similar to many other men’s.

“Over time, you have a busy and stressful job, you have family responsibilities, you don’t focus on yourself, and your wife nags you about going to the doctor, but you don’t want to go because you think the doctor will tell you to start taking better care of yourself and make you feel guilty about it,” she says.

Doctors want to help, though, Laurie says, and if she could share one message with the world after losing Mike, it’s not that you should go to the doctor for your own sake, but for the sake of your loved ones.

“I don’t want anyone else to experience the loss of a loved one to something that could have been prevented by routine, simple screenings,” she says.

“A chronic condition to manage, not a death sentence”

Head and neck cancers make up around 4% of all cancers in the United States, with around 67,000 people diagnosed with the disease each year. About 70% of oropharyngeal head and neck cancers  — which are cancers that start in the tonsils, soft palate and base of the tongue — are linked to HPV, a common sexually transmitted disease.

When head and neck cancer is caught early and hasn’t spread, the five-year survival rate is close to 90%.

“Like most cancers, if you find out about it early, your chances of living with it are really good,” Laurie says. “It becomes a chronic condition to manage, not a death sentence.”

Although Mike’s cancer was diagnosed at an advanced stage, he and Laurie did everything they could to fight it. Mike qualified for and was enrolled in three clinical trials, including one for T-cell therapy, which was grueling and left him in a lot of pain, Laurie remembers. “He wanted to live so badly,” she says.

Mike fought for two years, getting to see the birth of his third granddaughter and the engagement of his son, before he passed away. That was thanks to the innovative treatments he received, Laurie says. To honor his memory and the providers who cared for him, Mike’s friends awarded the Providence Cancer Institute of Oregon with a $2 million gift for an endowed chair in his memory. The Michael Kelley Endowed Chair for Cancer Research was awarded in 2021 to one of Mike’s doctors, Marka Crittenden, M.D., Ph.D., director of Translational Radiation Research and co-leader of the Integrated Therapies Lab at the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, a division of Providence.

Early detection is key

April is Head & Neck Cancer Awareness Month, an observance dedicated to awareness and education of the cancer type. While Mike’s cancer developed in his mouth — likely his tonsils, according to Laurie — there are many different types of head and neck cancers depending on where the disease starts, including:

  • Hypopharyngeal — the lowest part of the throat, called the hypopharynx.
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus — in the sinuses.
  • Nasopharyngeal — the nasopharynx, a chamber in the upper part of the throat behind the nose and near the base of the skull.
  • Laryngeal — in the larynx, or voice box.
  • Oral cavity — the lips, cheeks or front of the tongue.
  • Oropharyngeal — at the base of the tongue, soft palate or tonsils.
  • Salivary gland — in the glands on the sides of the face, below the jaw and inside the mouth and nose.

The most common risk factor for head and neck cancer is tobacco use. Roughly 70% to 80% of head and neck cancer cases are linked to tobacco, in fact. The second biggest risk factor is alcohol use. Other risk factors include:

  • Certain genetic syndromes
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection
  • HPV infection
  • Poor nutrition
  • Sun exposure

Early detection is key to combating head and neck cancer. While no routine screening tests for the disease currently exist, regular physical examinations of the head, neck and throat by a doctor or dentist can go a long way toward catching the disease early, when it’s easier to treat.

Also, if you’re under age 46, talk to your doctor about the HPV vaccine. Gardasil is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent certain kinds of cancer related to HPV. That includes oropharyngeal cancer, which has been on the rise over the past two decades, even as oral cancers linked to tobacco and alcohol use have declined.

“Looking back in photos, we can now see that there was a visible lump in Mike’s neck for more than a year before we discovered he had cancer,” Laurie says. “I feel compelled to try to get people to wake up. This is it. Your body is the only home you will stay in your entire life, so you have to pay attention and take care of it.”

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Related resources

$2M endowed chair funded to help develop new treatments at Providence Cancer Institute

Dr. Marka Crittenden receives honor to further research at Providence Cancer Institute

Early awareness is key to combating head and neck cancer

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.