Patient Stories

Joshua’s Story: A Stage 4 Laryngeal Cancer Diagnosis, An Unstoppable Attitude

Jun. 20, 2024

In early 2022, and with retirement right around the corner, Joshua faced an unexpected and life-altering challenge: laryngeal cancer.

Born and raised in Brown County, Ohio, Joshua Wagner spent 44 years as a dedicated union carpenter, traveling around the country, leading crews and large-scale projects. In early 2022, and with retirement right around the corner, he faced an unexpected and life-altering challenge: laryngeal cancer.

The journey started when Joshua noticed a troubling change in his voice and persistent throat discomfort. Despite consultations and testing at other area hospitals, his condition remained undiagnosed. It wasn't until a significant lump developed on his throat that the gravity of his situation became apparent. Initially suspected to be an infection, further tests revealed the presence of cancer cells from a rare and hard-to-detect cancer located behind his larynx.

Joshua recalls, “I knew I had to get it looked at. There’s something wrong. They thought it was an infection, so they didn’t take it out right away. They did medication and stuff like that…they didn’t know it was cancer for several months.”

Joshua’s physician at another local health system recognized the complexity of his case and referred him to UC Health, specifically to Dr. Chad Zender, a renowned surgeon and leader in the Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery Department. Dr. Zender is highly experienced in head and neck cancer. This decision marked a pivotal moment in Joshua's treatment journey.

“Even the doctors at [the other hospital] told him to come to UC [Health]. They had a lot of confidence, especially in Dr. Zender. ‘He’s the best, you have to go there,’” recalls Joshua’s sister, Nancy.

Upon his arrival at UC Health, Joshua received a final diagnosis – stage 4 laryngeal cancer. A comprehensive care plan led by an expert, multidisciplinary team moved swiftly. Dr. Zender, despite his busy surgical schedule, prioritized Joshua's care, performing the intricate neck surgery early on a February Saturday morning. Joshua’s sisters, Nancy and Vanessa, were there every step that day.

“It was a long day for them,” said Joshua.

The surgery, which lasted several hours, was a success. Joshua’s post-operative care included a 10-day stay in the ICU at UC Medical Center, where he received meticulous attention from the nursing staff.

Dr. Zender remembers how important Joshua’s outlook was in helping him get through his cancer care.  “Joshua’s attitude and desire to beat this aggressive cancer is what has helped him get through the various stages of treatment and the journey from a cancer patient to a cancer survivor.” 

An essential part of Joshua's recovery was meeting a former patient who had undergone similar neck cancer surgery. This encounter gave Joshua hope and a positive outlook on his future, showing him that a good quality of life was possible post-surgery, joining the community of cancer survivors.

Joshua said, “I don't know how common it is to have the patients meet with someone that's had the surgery before, but that was really neat. You could see and listen to his life and stories and that there’s good living after the surgery. It’s a good quality of life; this is just a hiccup. Before that, it felt so devastating. So, to see someone and to talk to someone that is so normal and living a very happy, normal life – that’s what made the difference.”

After surgery and his radiation therapy, Joshua focused on the next steps of his recovery. Angela Terese Dionisio, a speech pathologist in the Department of Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery, played a crucial role in Joshua’s rehabilitation. From the immediate post-surgery phase to ongoing therapy sessions, Angela’s expertise helped Joshua regain his ability to speak and manage his prosthesis effectively. This hands-on, personalized care ensured Joshua could transition smoothly back to a semblance of normalcy.

Angela said, "It is important for me to acknowledge that I will never truly know what it is like to live the life of my total laryngectomy patients. This is why I think it is so crucial to connect future patients with current patients. It really is a full circle moment, because now Josh is one of my patient mentors. He has helped so many people feel more at ease about this life changing surgery. Josh is one of the most resilient and hardworking people I know. I am grateful that he trusted me with his care."

Nancy said, “[The entire team] have been very attentive to Josh…holding his hand and walking with him through the whole thing. If there was a problem, we called them, and they were on it. They didn't make you wait days…It just seems like if there was a problem, we let them know, and they were on it every time… I would recommend anyone to go [to UC Health] because it was absolutely the most wonderful experience.”

A recent health concern caught by Dr. Zender led to thorough testing. Fortunately, Joshua’s biopsies came back clear, and his recovery continues. However, the additional experience reinforced for him and his family the dedication and patient-first approach taken by the team at UC Health.

“He's very thorough, and he knows what stuff looks like, and that's why he was adamant…they're keeping an eye on it, and we have to see doctors…and we'll talk to them about that again because, like, I said, they're very thorough about those things.

Given the nature of Joshua’s work, the importance of site and crew communication, and the ability to smell chemicals or concerning odors, the diagnosis and surgery moved him to a slightly earlier retirement. A retirement he’s thoroughly enjoying, filled with fishing, and doing what he loves, hands-on projects. 

Throughout his journey, Joshua was supported by his family, especially Vanessa and Nancy. Their encouragement was a constant source of strength and help when he needed it most. Joshua’s story is also a testament to the excellence of UC Health. From the initial diagnosis to the intricate surgery and comprehensive post-operative care, every step of Joshua’s cancer care journey was marked by exceptional medical expertise and compassionate support. And for his sister, Nancy, she knows he received care exactly where he needed to.

“Like I’ve said, I was very much impressed with the care that he got there. And just how nice everybody was, helpful in helping me care for him and knowing that he was in the best place for his surgery and for his treatment, just the whole care, the whole package, I'm just really impressed.”