Mike's story

Cancer Survivor

The last thing on Mike Bert’s mind when he went to get his stitches removed was a cancer diagnosis. But there he was, sitting in the doctor’s office hearing what he thought was a death sentence.

Back in the swing of things.

It was mid-January 2015 when Mike Bert II of Havelock noticed a lump on the left side of his neck. The 49-year-old retired Marine went to his doctor at Cherry Point to get it checked out. The doctor suggested treating it with antibiotics. If that didn’t help, they would take another look in two weeks.

The antibiotics didn’t work, and people outside of Mike’s family began to notice. His boss at the concrete company he worked for was extremely concerned and told Mike he needed to go back to the doctor right away.

This time, Mike saw an ENT in neighboring New Bern. He was told he had a cyst in his neck, and it was pinching the artery that went to his brain. Surgery was scheduled within days, and removal of the mass was successful. Mike was to return to the ENT in four weeks to have his stitches removed.

Mike went to the doctor alone, seeing no need for his wife, Samantha, to tag along. “It was no big deal,” he said. “I was just supposed to be getting the stiches out.”

At the appointment, the doctor and nurse were what Mike calls “hem-hawing around.” They offered him something to drink, and he was asked at least three times if his wife was joining him at the appointment. That was Mike’s first inclination that something was wrong.

“We’ve got news,” he remembers the doctor finally saying. “It’s cancer.” Mike needed to see a cancer specialist right away.

“Talk about throwing a bomb at me,” Mike said. He was shocked and quite frankly, scared. Mike’s dad died of pancreatic cancer. “He was diagnosed and 42 days later, he was gone. So, you can imagine what went through my head.” Mike immediately started thinking about his “bucket list.”

His appointment with the cancer doctor in New Bern was scheduled four weeks out. “I immediately went to my base doctor, Dr. Cash. She saw my ENT notes and talked with her nurse, and they both said this four week wait was unacceptable. She asked me how I felt about going to Leo Jenkins (now Vidant Cancer Care at the Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Tower) up in Greenville.”

Mike had no issues with traveling for treatment. His wife’s family lives in Farmville, so he could stay there whenever he needed to. He was able to get an appointment with Dr. Pamela Lepera almost immediately.

Under the care of Drs. Lepera, Andrew Ju and Brian Brodish, Mike underwent further testing and was diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer. The primary tumor was on the left side of the base of his tongue. The cancer had moved into a lymph node on the left side of this mouth, and was starting to invade the right side, too. Cancer was also found in Mike’s pituitary gland.

Treatment started immediately. Mike underwent 33 straight days of radiation (except Saturdays and Sundays) and had chemotherapy once a week for seven weeks. Radiation was to shrink the tumors. Chemo was to make sure the cancer didn’t spread during radiation. The radiation wreaked havoc on Mike’s body. He felt sick much of the time and dropped 115 pounds in about a month. “I weighed 280 pounds when I started. They told me I should be glad I was a big guy in this case.”

Because of the location of the cancer and such aggressive treatment, Mike was unable to eat most days. This caused him to be admitted to Vidant Medical Center twice, once for 20 days and once for six days. He had a feeding bag attached to him for 18 hours a day. When doctors wanted to put in a PICC line (a catheter used to give medicines, fluids, nutrients and blood products), Mike refused at first. But eventually, his wife; Vicki McLawhorn, one of his cancer providers; and Janet Reimer, his cancer care navigator, convinced him it was the best thing for him to do. “They basically said, ‘if you don’t, you won’t make it,’ because I could not eat normally.”

Every step of Mike’s journey was hard. Whenever he wanted to give up, he thought about the things that meant the most to him – Samantha, his family, his soon-to-be granddaughter, playing softball, driving his Jeep and walking his rescue dog, Charlie.

Those things got him through to Aug. 24, 2015, a date he remembers clearly. Mike was declared in remission from the throat cancer. There was nothing doctors could do about the 9 mm mass in Mike’s pituitary gland. He gets a scan every year to make sure it has not grown or changed. In addition, he gets a throat scan are every 3-4 months to make sure there is no recurrence.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing since his treatment. His weakened immune system made him more susceptible to every illness. He got shingles. He battled lymphedema and has had to have his throat stretched twice. He still drinks two nutrition shakes a day because eating just doesn’t come easy.

But on the bright side – and there is one, Mike said – he’s back at work, driving his beloved Jeep, playing softball and spending time with his wife, family and granddaughter, Trinity Rose, who made her entrance into this world less than two months after her granddad beat cancer.

Mike would like to thank all those who helped him win his cancer battle – the doctors, nurses, his navigator, and mostly importantly, his wife. “She was there during my hospital stays, sleeping in recliners and chairs, helping me get out of hospital beds and walk, even though sometimes I did not want to. She made sure I got all my meds and to my appointments. She was there when I wanted to walk my dog. She helped me push through and make longer walks. She had to learn and do a lot as my caregiver, and I am always grateful to have her as my wife of 32 years.”

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She (Samantha) was there during my hospital stays, sleeping in recliners and chairs, helping me get out of hospital beds and walk, even though sometimes I did not want to. She made sure I got all my meds and to my appointments. ...She had to learn and do a lot as my caregiver, and I am always grateful to have her as my wife of 32 years.

Mike Bert
Cancer Survivor