Navigating a Cancer Diagnosis One Quote at a Time

For a seven week stretch in 2018, Steve Kiley began each day with an inspirational quote. It was all part of his morning routine: he’d wake up, get ready for the day, and pull a sticky note off of the giant calendar created by his wife, Becky. The calendar helped Kiley count down his seven weeks of treatment for tonsil cancer, which has been effective: he has been cancer-free ever since.

“If it wasn’t for my wife, there was no way I could have gotten through this,” says Kiley. “She was my rock throughout my entire journey. Always positive, and simply amazing.”

Kiley’s diagnosis came in May 2018, when during an appointment for his sleep apnea, his sleep specialist noticed a lump on the left side of his neck. Concerned, the doctor encouraged Kiley to undergo further testing. A biopsy ultimately confirmed that the lump was a cancerous tonsil.

Kiley’s cancer could be linked to a strain of human papillomavirus (HPV). While the exact connection between the two is still unclear, if the immune system cannot completely remove the HPV infection, years later a person can develop oropharyngeal cancer — cancer in the tongue base or tonsils. At least a dozen strains of HPV can also cause cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal, and penile cancer.

“My wife and I cried when we heard the news,” Kiley recalls. “They said cancer and I just crumbled.”

The calendar that helped Steve Kiley count down his seven weeks of treatment for tonsil cancer.

Following his diagnosis, Kiley was placed under the care of Glenn Hanna, MD, an oncologist at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center Head and Neck Oncology program. This initial conversation with Hanna was the day Kiley’s mindset began to change.

“I was at ease during that meeting. He made me feel comfortable and even put a smile on my face,” Kiley adds. “I knew I was at the right place and I was in good hands.”

Kiley underwent seven weeks of daily radiation and three doses of chemotherapy to treat the cancer. During it all, Becky Kiley kept a daily journal documenting all the highs and lows of her husband’s treatment. From thanking Steve for accompanying her for a night out on the town to revealing her own concerns about the future, she says the journal helped her to process and work through the diagnosis. Regardless of how each passage started, Becky always ended it the same way: with a promise to stand alongside her husband and face his diagnosis together.

“Cancer will not take over our life; we will persevere and come out on top,” Becky wrote in one passage shortly after he finished his second round of chemotherapy. “Stay strong and keep fighting, Steve. I’m so proud of you and I love you.”   

Steve Kiley with his wife Becky and two children, Jordan and Grady.

In July 2018, Kiley finished treatment. He has been cancer-free ever since.

“Steve is out from treatment over a year and is doing well. His prognosis is excellent, but we will continue close surveillance over the first few years,” Hanna explains.

“Dr. Hanna saved my life, although he refuses to take credit for it,” says Steve Kiley. “We went from crying every day to smiling.”

Today, Kiley is back to work and once again playing an active role in the lives of his two children. One of his favorite things to do is help coach his 12-year-old son’s football team.

“I’m so thankful I didn’t have to go through this alone,” says Kiley. “I’m here today because of the love and support I received from my amazing wife and our two children.”