Genesee County 911 Dispatch Supervisor Chronicles Painful Mouth Cancer Journey
The Surgeon General has been warning for decades about the dangers associated with tobacco products. But a Swartz Creek resident who works for Genesee County 911 has the scars, the memories, and even a video to show just how dangerous they really are.
Nearly Four Decades of Chewing Tobacco
Mike 'Buck' Treiger's journey with oral cancer began in late 2022 when he noticed something out of the ordinary along his gumline. Technically, his journey began 39 years prior to that, when he began chewing tobacco in his late teens.
"The only time I didn't have chew in my mouth was when I was sleeping or eating pizza," the 56-year-old quipped during a phone interview with Townsquare Media.
Treiger says that he spent the next few months in denial, ignoring the jelly-bean-sized growth that had formed inside his mouth. When he finally brought the abnormality to his doctor's attention in February of this year, he was told that it was most likely cancer.
He was then referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist who agreed with his primary doctor's diagnosis and performed a biopsy.
A few days later, everyone's suspicions were confirmed. Treiger was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma.
Cancer Journey Documented
With the help of his wife Chris and their four adult children, Treiger chronicled his cancer journey in the video below.
Mike says that his ultimate goal is to dissuade everyone he can from using chewing tobacco like he did.
One Day Before Surgery
After a six-minute introduction, Mike said goodbye to the beard he'd been cultivating for about 15 years. Although doing so struck an emotional chord, he notes now that looking back it was nothing compared to the weeks that followed.
Treiger and his wife arrived at Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit at 5 am on the morning of March 28, accompanied by his mom and three of their children.
A team of surgeons worked to remove Mike's jaw and teeth while another team removed part of his fibula in order to reconstruct his jaw. Skin grafts were taken from his left leg and right arm to form what is now his chin.
He was in surgery for 19 and a half hours.
A Long Recovery
The weeks that lay ahead for Mike would prove to be grueling. Treiger spent the next 16 days in the hospital recovering. While most days brought progress and hope, regaining his strength and the use of his mouth was a painstakingly slow process.
Mike took his first walk four days after surgery and eventually regained his ability to swallow liquids and then food. But there were also setbacks. On day 13, there was some bleeding from the tube in his neck and he was sent for another CT.
Home From the Hospital
On April 13, 2023, Mike got his first taste of freedom in over two weeks, leaving the hospital and returning home to Swartz Creek.
"They just ordered all my discharge stuff," Mike says 33 minutes into his video. "They still have to take these two IVs out and as soon as they do that, I'm the hell out of here!"
But his recovery period was far from over.
Recovery at Home
Treiger would spend the next five months recovering at home as he embarked on the next phase of his journey: radiation and chemotherapy.
Mike's post-op regimen consisted of radiation treatments five days a week for six weeks.
"A living Hell" is the phrase he used to describe his experience with radiation.
"I had radiation burns on the outside of my neck that my wife had to treat every day," he said. "Then I had radiation burns inside my mouth, on the sides of my tongue, and in the back of my throat."
After completing five of his six weeks of radiation, Mike went four days without eating and declared that he was done with radiation.
However, his doctor was able to convince him that radiation was crucial to his treatment and he completed his two final rounds in sheer agony.
"The following two weeks after [radiation ended], I was in a living Hell, I was in misery," he said.
Treiger also had six Chemotherapy treatments but noted that it was low-dose chemo so it wasn't as grueling as he'd respected, especially compared to radiation.
Cancer-Free and Tobacco-Free
Now, more than five months post-surgery, Treiger is cancer-free and has been cleared to go back to work next week.
Ironically, he'll be able to return to his job as a dispatch supervisor for Genesee County 911 on September 11.
According to Mike, it was his 'second family,' his coworkers at Genesee County 911 who used his nickname 'Buck' and created the hashtag #BuckStrong. The wristband, which includes a cancer ribbon and deer antlers brought him to tears as he began his cancer fight nearly six months ago.
And Buck has completely given up tobacco, noting that he quit chewing on January 5, 2023.
He's adamant in his quest to encourage anyone who uses tobacco to give it up immediately and strongly discourages others from ever picking up the habit.
"I just don't want anyone to have to go through what I've been through," he said.