In the fall of 2020, Gary McCracken noticed a swollen lymph node near the upper left side of his neck. He initially didn't think much of it.
"I grew a beard for deer season and forgot all about it," he says with a chuckle.
After Thanksgiving, when Gary shaved his beard, the gland was still swollen. "There's a video of me playing guitar at church, and it looks like I swallowed a baseball," he says.
That's when the Hayward, Wisconsin, resident decided to get checked out.
"I went into the local clinic. The doctor who examined me said it was probably nothing, but I should have a biopsy to be sure," Gary says.
He was sent for a needle biopsy. When that biopsy uncovered suspicious cells, Gary was referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist in Duluth for further investigation.
"The ENT said, 'You know, you don't need that gland, so let's just take it out,'" Gary says.
Gary agreed. On Feb. 17, 2021, he had the lymph node removed. Two days later, he received a call that made it clear he was not out of the woods and ultimately would need more specialized care.
"The doctor said, 'I didn't think I was going to say this, but you have cancer somewhere in your body, and the cells have gotten into your lymph system and shown up in this gland,'" Gary recalls of the day he received the follow-up call.
Despite the heart-wrenching news, Gary put on a brave face for his wife of 42 years and his five children.
"I tried to downplay my diagnosis to my family and say it's not that big of a deal, but we're a close family, and we walked through it together," he says. "I'm also a person of faith, so that carried me through."
I tried to downplay my diagnosis to my family and say it's not that big of a deal, but we're a close family, and we walked through it together.Gary McCracken
Encouraged by his family and his faith, Gary continued to stay positive while he underwent more testing to try to identify the source of the cancer.
His local care team was unable to locate the cancer with imaging. So they sent him to Mayo Clinic in Rochester for further examination.
Gary remembers the moment he arrived at Mayo Clinic. Navigating the vast campus seemed daunting initially, but he quickly learned what makes Mayo Clinic magical: the people.
"The people there are so helpful. It's just so astounding how accommodating they are to go out of their way to help visitors navigate and feel at ease," Gary says. "It makes for such a positive and wonderful experience from the minute you walk in."
But Gary's gratitude for Mayo Clinic extends far beyond the warm welcome he received when he got to campus. Specialists worked together to uncover the source of Gary's cancer and treat it.
Gary was seen by the Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (ENT) Oropharynx Multidisciplinary Clinic team, including specialists in medical oncology, radiation oncology, dentistry and speech therapy, within one day of arriving at Mayo Clinic. Then he went to the operating room where Eric Moore, M.D., chair of Otorhinolaryngology, and supervisor-physician assistant Eliot Martin, performed exploratory robotic surgery.
"They explained that they would take a scope down my throat and start collecting pieces of tissue to send to Pathology while I was still under," Gary says. "And they would do this until they found the cancer."
It was the best possible outcome. We had a touching, tearful moment there. I was lying in the hospital bed, both specialists were there — it was really wonderful.Gary McCracken
It didn't take long for them to find the source. Located in the tonsil tissue at the back of Gary's tongue was a cancerous, pea-sized tumor.
"It was so small that it didn't show up on any of the scans I had before coming to Mayo Clinic," Gary says. "Once they found it, they cut me from ear to Adam's apple and took out the remaining 39 lymph nodes on the left side of my neck."
When Gary came out of anesthesia, his team told him the news: They not only successfully found and removed the cancerous tumor, but he also would not need chemotherapy or radiation.
"It was the best possible outcome. We had a touching, tearful moment there. I was lying in the hospital bed, both specialists were there — it was really wonderful," Gary says.
"My wife and I are just so thrilled with the compassion and care of everyone involved, from the doctors to the nurses who would come in at night," he says. "Such a big part is to keep a positive outlook to fight whatever you're going through, and they just helped so much with that."
Gary says life has been "surprisingly effortless" since recovering from surgery. He was home within a few days of the procedure and had complete function after a few weeks.
"I was eating fairly quickly and had very little pain," Gary says.
Now that he's fully recovered, he plans to make the most of every day he has left. To him, that means traveling around the country with his wife to visit his children, who are relieved their dad is cancer-free.
"When I called and told them I was free and clear, there was this wonderful euphoria," Gary says. "My daughter said, 'This could have been the worst year of our lives, and it ended up being a pretty good summer.'"
The cherry on top of a good summer? A three-day backpacking trip to Goat Rocks Wilderness in the Cascade Mountain range of Western Washington with Thomas, his second-born son.
"We did some camping when our kids were younger, and when Thomas moved to Portland, he got into backpacking," Gary says. "I started traveling out there yearly to go with him, but we had to skip a few times because of the pandemic."
With cancer behind him, Gary has a deeper appreciation for these adventures and the everyday moments in his life.
"It really is true what people say after they experience something like this — the sun shines brighter; the birds sing louder," Gary says. "Everything feels so good and rich and valuable."