When professional drag racer Larry Dixon, Jr., developed a sore throat in May 2014, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Even when the ache persisted for weeks, he didn’t worry. “Honestly, I forgot about it,” he admits. But when his throat was still bothering him that fall, he decided to check in with his primary care doctor. The exam revealed that Dixon’s tonsils were inflamed. The doctor said they’d probably have to be removed and referred Dixon to an Ears, Nose, and Throat (ENT) doctor. It wasn’t the best news, but certainly nothing the daring driver couldn’t handle.
But when the ENT doctor examined Dixon just a few weeks later, he knew right away that his patient’s tonsils weren’t merely inflamed: Dixon had throat cancer. And it wasn’t isolated to his tonsils. Subsequent testing revealed it had spread to his lymph nodes. Dixon, an otherwise healthy man in his forties, was diagnosed with stage III oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma.
Though stunned, Dixon, a husband and father of three, refused to let panic take over. “I immediately thought of my kids,” he says. “I knew I had to put on a brave face and fight this not just for myself but for my family.” His decision to keep his cancer battle private was also motivated by his children. “I didn’t want them to read gossip on the Internet about my condition,” Dixon explains. “If they had questions or worries, I wanted the answers to come from me, my wife or my doctors.”
One of the few people Dixon did confide in was his sister-in-law, Andrea Pedregon. As founder of the charity A Spark of Hope, she had donated funds to young cancer patients at Indiana University Health—and she knew IU Health would provide Dixon with top-notch care. Pedregon’s friends ultimately led Dixon to the office of Marion Couch, MD, PhD, a head and neck surgical oncologist, who would guide his treatment. “Throat cancer is more likely to occur in people who are older and have risk factors such as drinking and smoking, but we’re seeing more cases in younger people like Larry who don’t have these risk factors,” she says.
Dr. Couch’s recommended course of treatment wasn’t easy. Dixon didn’t need surgery, but he would require six grueling weeks of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments. He had a team of physicians who cared for him at every step of the way. Still, Dixon managed to find an upside. “The racing season was almost over when I started treatment, so my team didn’t know anything was wrong with me,” he says.
On January 6, 2015, Dixon completed his final treatment. Though weak, tired, and 15 pounds lighter, he returned to racing just one week later. “Larry did remarkably well in treatment, and I knew he wanted to return to work right away,” says Dr. Couch. For Dixon, returning to work so quickly just felt right. “I look at my cancer as a speed bump in life,” he says. “You get through it, and then you have to live the rest of your life.”
Not even a terrifying crash that March—in which his dragster split in half at 280 mph and went airborne—could discourage him. “It was a season for the ages,” he says, laughing. A month later, he got the best news possible: his scans showed no sign of cancer.
Today, Dixon credits the support of his family and the team of experts at IU Health for his return to good health. “I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone, but if you have go through it, these are the people you want taking care of you,” he says. And he hopes that sharing his battle with throat cancer will encourage others to be more diligent about taking care of their health. “This experience has made me more aware of my body and what it’s telling me,” he says. “Just because a symptom seems minor doesn’t mean it is.”
-- By Jessica Brown