Overcoming “Terrifying Fears” for Cancer Treatment

Patient credits Lacks Cancer Center Care Team for Helping Him Receive Treatment

Charles Coughlan

“The biggest thing for me was not the cancer itself,” Charles Coughlan recalled. “It was the needles. I’ve been to a licensed psychologist about my phobia. I can’t listen to people talking about needles; I can’t watch needles being used on a TV show; I can’t even see a cartoon with needles.”

Coughlan’s cancer journey began when he found a bump on his neck while he was shaving. Charles’ primary care physician (PCP) thought it could be an infection, so the PCP prescribed an antibiotic, but over time, it didn’t reduce the lump. That’s when Coughlan saw an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist, who performed a biopsy.

“About four days later,” said Coughlan, “I was shopping, and I got a call from the doctor saying that the biopsy results had come back, and it was cancer. At that point, I didn’t hear much more because my head was spinning. I was a bit confused. My ENT called it something I’d never heard before: Squamous cell cancer.”

Coughlan’s ENT referred him to Mercy Health Lacks Cancer Center for treatment, where he was welcomed by a care team* that helped him to cope with a phobia he has had his entire life, “a terrifying fear of needles.” Having to face blood tests and chemotherapy was extremely troubling for him.

Medical Oncologist Jared Knol, MD, explained to Coughlan that chemotherapy could improve his survival rate by about 10 percent.

“That’s when I said, ‘I don’t know if it’s really worth doing it.’ I considered not doing it because of my fear of needles,” he explained.

But Coughlan had given his daughter, 24, his word that he would do his best to beat the cancer. He also has a young grandson to consider.

Coughlan and his entire care team at Lacks Cancer Center worked hand in hand during his treatment, but he credits his ability to complete chemo to Mercy Health Nurse Navigator Rachel Overmyer.

“I love nurse Rachel to pieces. She works so hard to make everything so easy for me. I could never thank her enough.”

Nurse navigators coordinate care among the various specialties so that patients can spend their energy on getting better.

Together with Coughlan’s chemo nurses, Overmyer and Coughlan were able to come up with a plan that allowed him to successfully complete six chemo treatments and 35 radiation oncology treatments.

The night before chemo, Coughlan would sleep only a couple of hours so that when his driver dropped him off for treatment, he could spend the time during chemo sleeping. “I wouldn’t even be conscious during the chemo. They would just wake me up when it was over. It was fantastic.”

He also took an anti-anxiety medication to help him relax more. The chemo nurses arranged for Coughlan to receive his treatment in a private room. He wore a mask to cover his eyes so he wouldn’t see the other patients with their IVs when he was walking to his room.

“My chemo nurses were gentle, patient, loving and compassionate,” Coughlan recalled. “They sprayed my port area to numb it. They got me a warm blanket, dimmed the lights and gave me a button to call them if I needed them. Then they’d let me rest. I had wonderful nurses throughout my treatment. I can never put into words how much I appreciate them.”

Five days a week, for seven weeks, Coughlan had radiation treatments, too. Overmyer coordinated care with Derek Bergsma, MD, and other members of the Radiation Oncology department, as well as Dietitian Amy Bragagnini, (she has several pretty impressive credentials) and Speech Therapist Jared Host.

“There was a point when my throat was pretty messed up from the radiation. I couldn’t eat or drink hardly, and I lost 26 pounds in a couple of weeks. I had to get IV fluids twice a week,” Coughlan said. “Amy Bragagnini helped me a lot, but sometimes we’d just talk about her time in Ireland (where Coughlan was born) to take my mind off things. It was like we were old friends, and I always felt great after our meetings. She would also give me coupons for protein drinks.”

It’s not often that a doctor and a dietitian agree to “prescribe” a patient one carton of Häagen-Dazs® ice cream per day, but that’s precisely what happened to Coughlan.

In fact, for about six weeks, the ice cream, plus protein drinks were his main meal of the day!

“Jared was really nice, too, and coordinated with Nurse Rachel. He helped a lot with the mouth rinses. For a while, it was difficult to speak, and my throat felt like sunburn on sunburn.”

Coughlan struggled to fully describe the remarkable care he received during this difficult time in his life. He described all of the members of his care team as “sweet, caring, amazing, positive and compassionate. They worked so hard to make life easy for me. They were all just super.”

Today, Coughlan throat is much improved, and his ENT says it is coming along well. He has some of his taste back; it varies from one food to another. He says he can live with that because he can “live.”  A man with a mission, Charles is exercising and eating a variety of solid foods…doing all he can to keep his promise to his daughter.

Coughlan sums up his appreciation for the team at Lacks Cancer Center in this way:

“As a young kid, the greatest thing you experience is Santa Claus. The way that the people at Lacks Cancer Center have managed to help me get through these chemos and blood draws — it is better than Santa Claus.

“I can’t believe they got me through my extreme fears.”

*Rachel McCuddy, RN, medical oncology nurse

Dawn Mosqueda radiation oncology

Kristin Zoller, radiation oncology

Allyson Hayward, radiation oncology

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