TWIN FALLS – Alan Brooks had every reason to give up. Who could have blamed him?
He’d been diagnosed with stage four cancer, a disease that had killed his father, his grandfather and his sister. He was homeless, camping in a tent down in a canyon and riding his bicycle to get where he needed to go. He didn’t have a job or any close family in town, and hearing loss had made it difficult to communicate with doctors.
Instead, he chose to undergo treatment. He chose to fight.
After seven weeks of radiation, combined with chemotherapy, Brooks’ head and neck cancer is in remission. And – thanks to the efforts of a compassionate social worker – Brooks is no longer homeless.
“I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere in life,” he said after his one-month follow-up appointment Dec. 12. “And today, I think that I am.”
Brooks, 57, is receiving benefits he never would have applied for on his own, and it’s given him a second chance at living a typical life. All it took, he said, was someone willing to listen.
Diagnosis and evaluation
It was sometime in June when Brooks could no longer stand the pain. He had a lump on his throat that he thought was just another abscessed tooth.
He checked into the emergency room at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center, and doctors performed some tests. By July, they’d discovered the problem: Brooks had stage four throat cancer.
“He presented with a very large lymph node in his neck – probably 5 or 6 centimeters in size,” St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute Dr. Richard Hymas said.
The exact origin of the cancer was unknown, But Brooks used to chew tobacco and continues to smoke and drink. Any of those vices could have been the culprit.
“I think he struggled a little bit in deciding whether to get treatment or not,” said Melissa Osen, a licensed clinical social worker for St. Luke’s MSTI.
Brooks thinks what kept him going was the memory of his sister, who died of brain cancer four years ago.
“She gave up, and I wasn’t going to,” he said.
Patients at MSTI are entitled to a social worker at no cost to help them understand their treatments and diagnoses and weigh their options. Osen was the social worker assigned to Brooks, and she soon realized his case was more complicated than usual because of his living situation.
Brooks was terrified, but once he opted for treatment, the fight was on.
A dental evaluation showed he needed to have all of his teeth removed prior to radiation. Throat cancer radiation is hard on patients, Hymas said, because the sensitive salivary glands produce less saliva and swallowing becomes painful.
“It feels like a sunburn on the inside,” he explained. “That’s why it’s very hard to eat.”
To get Brooks the nutrition he needed, he would need a feeding tube. But the necessary open wound and equipment could become a risk factor if not kept clean and dry.
“We couldn’t start treatment until he had a place to live,” Osen said.
With Brooks’ aggressive and advanced stage of cancer, he needed treatment quickly.
St. Luke’s emergency fund money got Brooks into a room at the Quality Inn & Suites, and paid for taxi rides to and from the hospital. Meanwhile, Osen made some contacts with Idaho Housing and Finance Association. She explained Brooks’ situation. The application process was predictably difficult with no permanent mailing address for Brooks.
“He really guided everything that he needed,” Osen said. “I’d say ‘What do you need?’ and he’d say, ‘I need you to listen.’”
Over the next couple of weeks, Osen got Brooks approved to receive disability benefits from social security. He also got approved for Medicaid and food stamps. With the Idaho Housing subsidy approved, Osen sought out an apartment. Fawnbrook Apartments came through.
“By the grace of God, they had one one-bedroom apartment open within one week,” Osen said.
South-Central Community Action Partnership helped Brooks pay his security deposit, and Deseret Industries set him up with furniture.
“It was really a lot of community partners coming together and listening to his story,” she said.
After eight years in and out of tents, Brooks finally had the resources he needed to live in an apartment, eat well and get to the doctor. As he talked about all that had happened, tears welled in his eyes.
“If it was going to be up to me, it would have taken forever,” Brooks said. “(Osen) had it done just like that.”
And he felt like a king.
“I don’t have to worry about the zipper going out on the door,” he said.
A silver lining
For five days a week, seven weeks, the radiation treatments continued until the end of November. During each dose, Brooks was put under a constraining mask customized to his face, neck and shoulders. The mask prevented all but a few millimeters of movement – and he hated it.
But he kept coming, one day at a time. Before getting into the Fawnbrook Apartments, Brooks would park his bicycle at a local business and meet a taxi somewhere in town. Because of his hearing loss, he often got confused about which doctors he was seeing. Speaking loudly and clearly, Osen helped interpret.
Brooks was deeply touched by Osen’s relentless effort, but she says any other social worker at St. Luke’s would have done the same.
“We try to see each individual and meet them where they’re at,” she said.
On Dec. 12, Brooks was eating four meals a day and his cancer was in remission.
“This would have killed him probably within a year without treatment,” Hymas said.
And in this case, the disease spurred the cure for many of his problems. Thanks to the assistance from St. Luke’s, Brooks planned to make some big changes in his life.
He hoped to quit smoking – though he knew it would be a struggle when all of his friends smoked. He was going to get some dentures so he could enjoy a T-bone steak. Brooks was also waiting to hear back about a dog he was trying to adopt from the shelter, which he described as “just a little hairy mutt.” By the New Year, he hoped to have a vehicle.
His plans for Christmas? Cooking up a ham for dinner.
“When was the last time you cooked yourself Christmas dinner in your own place?” Osen asked.
“I don’t remember,” he replied, pausing to think. “I don’t remember.”