Ambassador Profiles

The HNCA Ambassadors are dedicated to educating the community-at-large about these cancers. Our ambassadors are cancer patients, survivors and/or caregivers whose inspirational journeys give true meaning to what happens when you are diagnosed with cancer, during and post-treatment.

If your organization is hosting an event, conducting research on patient journeys or designing clinical protocols, contact HNCA at or fill the online request form to inquire about our HNCA Ambassadors’ potential involvement.

Table of Contents

Cancer Survivor Ambassadors

Thomas Bennett

Husband & Father
Owner & Operator of Bennett & Associates
Survivor of HPV-attributed Throat Cancer
Mount Pleasant, SC

“I was by myself that day as my wife was visiting our daughter at college. I walked out of the hospital in shock. I asked myself “Why me?” and “What did I do?” He called his wife from the car and told her the bad news. I cried. I felt alone. But believe it or not, that may have been the emotionally worst part… processing the cancer diagnosis alone.”

Itzhak Brook, M.D. Msc.

Physician and Professor of Pediatrics, Georgetown University School of Medicine and HNCA Board Member
Survivor of Throat Cancer
Washington, DC

As a head and neck cancer survivor and a laryngectomee, Dr. Brook feels great satisfaction that his personal experience enables him to help other survivors to speak again and lead a full and satisfying life.

Bob Cancalosi

Leadership Consultant
Retired from General Electric after 31 Years
Survivor of Pleomorphic Adenoma
Lexington, MA

Bob has faced decades of major health challenges with pleomorphic adenoma, a rare type of salivary gland cancer. In 1978, at the age of 18, he had a parotid tumor removed from his neck and seven years later more recurring masses required surgical removal. He also underwent 33 rounds of radiation for 2 months to shrink more tumors.

Bill Cason

Husband and Proud Father of Three
Commercial Airline Pilot
Survivor of HPV-Attributed Tongue Cancer
Flower Mound, TX

… his physician felt it was probably nothing, maybe just an infection. One area that Bill regrets is that from that initial response, he was slower than he should have been in getting further testing… “This was an incredible shock, having no symptoms and being very active,” explained Bill.

Stephan Cassidy

Occupation – Veteran
Survivor of Stage IV Tongue Cancer
Lutz, FL

After months back and forth, he had a “feeling” something still wasn’t right. He went back to his physician and was then scheduled for a CAT scan. Only 45 minutes after the scan, Stephan was driving home and received a call, requesting him to drive directly to the ENT clinic. He knew then that his life had forever changed.

Hank Deneski

Husband & Father
Survivor of Stage IV Tongue Cancer
Union, OH

“Hank” Deneski, a 14-year survivor of stage IV inoperable squamous cell carcinoma at the base of tongue, has an urgent message for others diagnosed with oral, head and neck cancer: “Take control, or be controlled.”

Denise DeSimone

Author, Speaker, Mentor, Minister, Podcaster, Documentarian
Survivor of Stage IV Throat & Neck Cancer
Haverhill, MA

Denise approached her cancer treatment using her own unique combination of alternative therapies, music, allopathic medicine, deep faith that fear would bow its head to faith and a strong connection to a higher power. Denise considers herself not just a “survivor,” she is a “THRIVER.”

Alyssa Fischer-Reeder

Wife & Mother
Founder, Head and Neck Cancer Fund
Survivor of Stage IV Tongue Cancer
Alexandria, VA

“Throughout my battle with cancer, the power of hope is what kept me afloat emotionally and mentally. My team of world-renowned doctors, my family and friends helped me survive and thrive. I taught myself how to swallow, eat, talk, and laugh again. Without hope I’m not sure what I would have done.”

Ryan Gainor

Lawyer & Husband
Survivor of Stage IV Tongue Cancer
Rhode Island

“My cancer journey is not a sad story. I still struggle some days, and the months after my diagnosis were the most trying, difficult, and painful of my life. But my medical team was amazing. My community took care of me. And upon reflection, I have fond memories of the strong friendships I have and the power of family. Friends from around the country came to our house to spend time with me,” said Ryan. “We still talk about those days, and the good times we had in spite of what was going on. But in the end, I was extremely fortunate to receive my diagnosis when I did.”

Steve Holzer

Executive Television Producer/Journalist
Survivor of HPV-attributed Tongue and Neck Cancer
West Hollywood, CA

“Everything moved very fast, because I knew it had to move fast. I was fitted for the radiation mask that I would wear every day during treatment,” explained Steve. “My first radiation treatment was exactly two weeks later. The chemotherapy was once a week, which I did on Tuesdays immediately after radiation. I called them Double Treatment Tuesdays.”

Gail Jackson

Survivor of HPV-attributed Tonsil Cancer
Rehoboth Beach, DE

“Eating has been a challenge with the reconfiguration of my throat, and my taste and swallowing is altered. I see my medical team every three months. My last scan was good, and I continue to be grateful and prayerful for continued good news.”

Laura Kadetsky

Spouse & Mother
Nonprofit Executive & Attorney, currently Chief Administrative Officer & General Counsel, New Leaders
Three-time Survivor of Oral Cancer
Chevy Chase, MD

No one knew why she got tongue cancer. Laura had never smoked a cigarette and wasn’t a heavy drinker. The tumor was not HPV positive. She was young and female. There were assumptions that other health conditions or medicines she had taken might have contributed to it, but in the end, nothing was certain. Because of her apparently low-risk profile, Laura moved forward by considering each of these events to be one-time flukes that were now behind her.

Ed King

Husband & Father
Partner in a company developing infectious disease diagnostics including a Head and Neck Cancer rapid test
Stage 4 Tongue and Neck Cancer, HPV Negative
Windsor, CO

In August 2014, Ed was diagnosed with squamous cell tongue cancer. Earlier in the month, he noticed a bump on the tip of his tongue that didn’t go away. Cancer was totally unsuspected, either by his family physician or his initial ENT. However, the lab test told a different story.

Tony Langford

Certified Public Accountant, Husband & Father
Survivor of Stage IV Tongue and Tonsil Cancer
Lake in the Hills, IL

“I could not have made it through as well as I did without my wife being with me each and every step of the way through this unwanted journey,” explained Tony. “We were carried along by so many others. We have such a deeper sense of appreciation and love for so many, especially for our parents, our brothers, and their families, along with many friends and our church community.”

Gary Lazarz

Husband & Father
Manufacturing Salesman
Survivor of Stage II HPV-Attributed Throat Cancer
Dacula, GA

“I was able to do this through prayer, stubbornness, and humor. It all really helped keep my attitude positive and my head in the right frame of mind,” explained Gary. “Look, cancer sucks. It’s scary, but it can be beaten. Ninety percent of what it takes to beat it is in one’s mind.”

Melvin LeBlanc

Husband & Father
Global HSSE Learning Advisor at Shell Oil Company
Survivor of Head and Neck Cancer
Houston, TX

“Between the time of diagnosis and treatment, I remained patient and continued to seek spiritual guidance. I acknowledged to myself, family and friends that God knew this to be in my life’s decree, that this happened to me for a reason and at the time prescribed (58 years old). I relied on God to give me the resolve to accept this cancer decree and that He would not give me a burden or situation beyond my capacity to handle and to get through it.”

Thad Lurie

Husband & Father
Vice President, Business Intelligence
Survivor of Stage 2/3 HPV-attributed Oropharyngeal Cancer
Broomfield, CO

“I’m not sure how long I sat and stared at those words, malignancy and metastatic, unable to truly accept what they meant,” expressed Thad. “I started crying, and I called to my wife – she read the report, and then we fell apart. You can try to prepare for something like this, but no matter how much reading you do, the actual experience is something completely outside your realm of understanding.”

Stewart Lyman, Ph.D.

Cancer Researcher and Biotechnology Consultant
Survivor of HPV-attributed Tonsil Cancer
Seattle, WA

“Take it from me: cancer prevention is always preferable to cancer treatment. As I’ve transitioned from cancer researcher to cancer patient to cancer survivor, I vow to make every effort to keep others from joining my club,” explained Stewart.

Jason Mendelsohn

Father, President of Ashar Group, LLC
Survivor of HPV-attributed Tonsil Cancer
Maitland, FL

Jason made the decision to share his cancer story publicly so that others could learn about HPV oropharyngeal cancer, oral cancer screening, and the HPV vaccine. He is fueled to educate parents about the HPV vaccine and about oral cancer screenings so that one day no parent will ever have to make a video similar to the ones he made for his kids back in 2014.

Mike Metzler

Husband & Retired Professor, Georgia State University
Survivor of Stage 4 Mucoepidermoidal Tongue Cancer
Decatur, GA

“With all the good things I have to live for, it has been well worth it. That’s the story I tell in the book and to every cancer patient and caregiver I meet. Don’t spend your time dwelling on what cancer has taken away from your life—spend your time enjoying the many good things you still have in your life.”

Michael Murphy, MD

Husband and Father
Neuroscientist and Psychiatrist, Harvard Medical School
HPV-Attributed Tonsil Cancer Survivor
Boston, MA

headshot of Michael Murphy

Now, he understands how real death is and how wonderful and brief our time on Earth really is. The recurrence rates for his cancer are low, but they are not zero, and Michael understands that, whether or not his cancer returns, this experience will profoundly shape the rest of his life. “When I was undergoing treatment, I found that first-hand accounts of people with similar cancers were very helpful to hear. I read about a chef with tongue cancer and how it took him over a year to get his taste back. I was connected with a Head and Neck Cancer Alliance Ambassador, and we texted regularly,” said Michael. “As a psychiatrist, I am a firm believer in the power of words and shared stories to help people heal. Now, I would like to be a source of support for other people who have been diagnosed with head and neck cancers.”

Shant’a Miller-White

Mother, CEO/Founder of Parents Against Bullying VA
Throat Cancer Survivor
Hampton, VA

“I felt like the air was let out of me. All I could think about were my kids. As soon as I heard the word ’cancer,’ I thought of dying. The doctor kept talking but I couldn’t hear him. Although I knew the road ahead would be challenging, I was so grateful that I listened to my body and forced the doctor to have the tonsillectomy. My second surgery was scheduled for the following month.”

Christopher Nolan

Husband, Father & Grandfather
Survivor of HPV-Attributed Tongue Cancer
Fort Worth, TX

“It was by far the hardest thing I have ever done, but my faith and fitness level were huge benefits,” explained Chris. “I am now a proud 7-year survivor.”

Tina O’Dell

Mother, Marine & Fighter
Survivor of HPV-Attributed Stage III Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Head and Neck
Columbus, IN

“I had no idea that HPV could cause head and neck cancer,” added Tina. “I am an advocate for everyone I know. I don’t want them to experience what I and my family experienced because we did not know about this sexually transmitted virus.”

Jamie Powell

Wife & Mother, Daycare Provider
Survivor of Tongue Cancer
Coto DeCaza, CA

Jamie had to remain in the hospital for a week during the same time COVID-19 was spreading in the US. “It was extremely hard to go through this alone, but I knew I had to stay strong. They removed 1/3 of my tongue along with the lymph nodes on my left side,” explained Jamie.

Cristiana Ratti-Williams

Wife and Instructional Designer at Johns Hopkins Health System
Survivor of Throat Cancer
Reisterstown, MD

At the time Cristiana thought it was an overreaction for a hoarse voice. Her voice, however, continued to weaken and became difficult for others to hear her and understand what she was saying.

Paul Reitano

Husband & Father
Professional Photographer
Survivor of Stage III HPV-attributed Tonsil Cancer
Leeds, MA

He regards his success as a direct result of getting the best possible care at Fox Chase. “I cannot stress this enough: when you are diagnosed with cancer, GO TO A CANCER HOSPITAL!” he urges. “After that, go to another cancer hospital for a second opinion. This can literally mean the difference between life and death, or the quality of your life post-treatment.”

Jacki Rogozinski

Healthcare Sales & Marketing Professional
Survivor of Stage IV Oral Cancer
Austin, TX

At the same time, she felt she’d dodged a bullet, and also wondered “Why me?” She was told tobacco use was the major risk factor; she had never been a smoker and despised the habit. Nor had her cancer been identified as HPV-attributed. Why had this cancer found her?

Angie Rush

Proud Mother & Wife
Survivor of Stage IV Tongue Cancer
Boca Raton, MD

“Even with all of my daily reminders of what this disease has done to me, the permanent reminders, the scars that anyone can see. I remind myself, even on the bad dark days that I fought this horrible disease and I will always fight for the rest of my days.”

Mickey Schilling-Morris

School Bus Driver
Retired Real Estate Broker & Agent
Survivor of Laryngeal Cancer
Wilkinson, IN

”During the years I had made several attempts to stop smoking. From hypnosis to vaping…I had tried it all. The day I was diagnosed with cancer on my voice box, was the day I put all forms of nicotine down.”

Ellen Sheffer

Educator/Administrator, San Luis Obispo County Office of Education
HPV-attributed Oropharyngeal Cancer Survivor
San Luis Obispo, CA

“I believe my primary physician saved my life. She understood that I was busy and had things to do and places to go, so she called the ENT herself,” explained Ellen.

Susan Joseph Smith

Wife, Marketing Executive
Survivor of Stage VI Tongue Cancer
Fairfield, CT

“When I look back on the treatment, I’m still in disbelief as to what I went through. I trudged through treatment, but my body did not react well. Radiation left me literally burnt, filled with mouth sores and thrush, and barely able to eat. Chemotherapy left me nauseous and supremely tired. My doctors continued to give me extra hydration throughout and flirted with the idea of a feeding tube due to massive weight loss, but I summoned the little strength I had and pushed back thinking my body still has some fight left in me. Two days after I completed radiation and chemotherapy, I landed in the hospital due to malnutrition for 10 days. Clearly, I had nothing left to give and my body was finally screaming enough!”

Michael Sola

Husband, Father and IT Director
Survivor of HPV-attributed Stage 2 Throat Cancer
Loudon, TN

“Michael is a big believer that we all have a voice, and it’s important to share our journey. He has been very open on social platforms about his diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, gathering strength and encouragement from so many friends and connections.”

Ken Solomon

Father, Interior Designer
Survivor of Tongue Cancer
Boca Raton, FL

The negative side effects of his treatments have either lessened or disappeared. However, a few remain, and Ken deals with them on a daily basis, which he says is “not too difficult given the alternative.” He still receives weekly lymphedema occupational therapy and will continue to do so as long as possible as it is incredibly helpful.

Cindy Stemple

Wife, Morgan Stanley,
Survivor of Stage III Oral Cancer
Westerville, OH

Only 27 years old, with no previous risk factors for the disease, Cindy learned she would need to have a portion of her tongue removed along with a multitude of lymph nodes and would additionally need 33 sessions of radiation treatment to have the best chance in overcoming the disease.

Ada Valdes

Mother, IT Project Manager/Beekeeper
Survivor of HPV-attributed Tonsil Cancer
Miami, Fl

“I firmly believe that bee was a Godsend, and I credit it for saving my life. Like bees working together towards a sweet and positive end, my ‘hive’ of family and friends provided love, prayers, flowers, and plenty of soup. Each day was one day closer towards reaching the finish line. My subsequent PET scan came back clear,” explained Ada.

Michael West

Husband & Father
Litigation Attorney
Survivor of HPV-attributed Stage IV Throat Cancer
San Diego, CA

“Don’t give up, just keep looking forward. Don’t let cancer be your story, but let it be the catalyst for a transformation into a better you,” encourages Michael.

Anthony White

Chief Patient Experience Office
Survivor of Stage IV Metastatic Head and Neck Cancer
Redondo Beach, CA

When faced with navigating an intensive course of more 370 hours of in-patient chemotherapy, 40 radiation treatments, and six surgical procedures on his journey towards wellness, Anthony mustered his strength, persevered, and a new life path awaited him.

Caregiver Ambassadors

Julie Bockoff

Patient Caregiver, Stage IV Tonsil Cancer Patient
Detroit, MI

“Watching someone you love battle cancer is scary and heartbreaking. Dealing with it from 3,000 miles away is awful. My best friend lives in Las Vegas, and I live in Detroit,” explained Julie. “After three weeks of treatment, his voice was gone, and his throat was too sore to talk on the phone. Not being able to see him or talk to him while he was going through treatment was excruciating.”

Allison Breininger

Caregiver to Husband Sean, a Fanconi Anemia, tongue, bladder, and throat cancer survivor
Writer, Speaker, and Caregiver Advocate at The Negative Space,
Director of PreK Reading Corps, Reading and Math, Inc
St. Paul, MN

“In her time as his caregiver, [Allison] has come to realize that caregivers are often in the negative space: unseen, unrecognized, unsupported, yet a vital part of the big picture. She has watched as teams of experts support and care for her husband, while she, in the same room, traumatized by the same events, is overlooked, even as she struggles to take on a role for which she was entirely untrained and unprepared while continuing to work and parent full time. ”

Sue Lim

Oncology Nurse
Caregiver to husband Carl, lymphoepithelial-like carcinoma of the parotid gland
Seattle, WA

“We had never heard of salivary gland cancers, let alone LELC. The first sign that something was very wrong was when the surgeon came back with the diagnosis with a journal article about the disease,” explained Sue. “In the coming days, while heavily researching on the internet, we learned that it may be an association with Epstein-Bar Virus (EBV) in LELC, as well as a higher prevalence in parts of Asia (particularly in regions of China, Hong Kong). Carl was born in Hong Kong and had lived in the U.S. since age 12.”

Kristi Mason

Mother, Wife & Caregiver
Caregiver to Husband, Stage III Throat Cancer Patient
Derry, NH

“I was running an apothecary out of my kitchen, brought on by the nausea of chemo and the third degree burns on both sides of my husband’s neck from the aggressive radiation,” explained Kristi. “To keep track of all the medicines, I would line each one up on our counter with a clipboard under each that highlighted instructions on when to take it and to jot down the day and time he took it. It was the only way I could keep track of everything.”