A second-year UCT student is fighting for his future after being diagnosed with a rare cancer during lockdown.
Michael Cilliers, 19, left his Cape Town student digs to visit his parents in Johannesburg when lockdown hit. But being stuck with family became a blessing in disguise when the shock diagnosis of NUT-midline carcinoma turned his life upside down.
“Two weeks after lockdown happened, I noticed a mass in my neck starting to form. It was really uncomfortable and became painful,” Cilliers said.
A GP prescribed antibiotics for a salivary gland infection, and when those didn’t work, he saw a dentist, who thought the pain was likely caused by his wisdom teeth. Then a consultation with an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist suggested he might have salivary gland stones. A CT scan didn’t reveal any stones, but Cilliers’ neck continued to swell.
“That was the point I started panicking,” he said.
He went in for surgery to remove the problematic salivary gland, and during surgery, the ENT noticed that lymph nodes in Cilliers’ neck didn’t look right. On a hunch, he sent a tissue sample to Tygerberg Hospital’s lab for analysis, and eventually had a definitive diagnosis of NUT carcinoma.
It’s now two months since the diagnosis. He has lost 12kg, and the cancer has spread to the bones of his hips, shoulders and vertebrae – but chemotherapy seems to be shrinking the main tumour in his neck.
“It’s quite nerve-racking because I have looked this cancer up online, and the prognosis isn’t the greatest. Out of all the different cases I’ve looked at, the prognosis is about six months. I’ve already done two. So I’m on edge, hoping the chemo will help,” he said.
His oncologist, Dr Daleen Geldenhuys, said that there was so little research on this type of tumour because there were so few in the world – but if chemotherapy reduces Cilliers’s neck tumour enough, he will hopefully be able to enrol in an international clinical trial.
“This cancer is extremely rare,” Geldenhuys said.
NUT carcinoma originates when part of one specific chromosome breaks off and attaches to another chromosome. The cells begin to grow and divide rapidly, and don’t die off like normal cells do.
“My friends and family have given me a lot of support – even people I don’t know are praying for me, which I’m so thankful for,” said Cilliers.
To find out more or to donate towards Cilliers’s treatment, see the Fighting For Mike group on Facebook, or the fund-raising drive on Quicket.