Expert surgeon detects nearly invisible throat cancer before it spreads

Ozzie Giglio, throat cancer survivor, right, with his wife

Ozzie Giglio of Hinsdale, Ill., had such hidden throat cancer that even his diagnostic scans did not detect the abnormality. Thankfully, though, he found an experienced doctor who did.

When he felt a suspicious lump in his neck in the summer of 2016, Giglio took his cardiologist’s recommendation to seek care at the University of Chicago Medicine, which has one of the leading head and neck cancer programs in the nation. A CT test and biopsy results suggested the lump was benign. However, Nishant Agrawal, MD, chief of the Section of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at UChicago Medicine, suspected something was amiss.

Agrawal recognized Giglio’s squamous cell carcinoma from years of treating similar cases and his extensive experience and research in the field. Agrawal advised for the immediate removal of the mass and other lymph nodes. Of the 34 lymph nodes removed, one tested positive for stage 3 cancer.

“I credit Dr. Agrawal with a great deal of persistence and knowledge,” Giglio said. 

Giglio then underwent robotic surgery to remove the tumor from his throat. Since Agrawal’s team discovered and removed the cancer at such an early juncture with favorable pathology, Giglio did not need further treatment. He celebrated his one-year anniversary of being cancer-free in fall 2017.

“I credit Dr. Agrawal with a great deal of persistence and knowledge,” Giglio said. “If I had waited another six months, this could’ve been a lot worse.”

Giglio’s health journey – and his gratefulness for early detection – inspired him and his wife to look for ways to support Agrawal and to help other patients. The couple, who own 15 Harley Davidson shops and retail stores across Illinois and Wisconsin, want to see further advances in physicians’ ability to test for and predict throat and mouth cancer. To that end, they committed to funding Agrawal’s research through a $200,000 gift.

Ozzie Giglio rides his motorcycle near his home. Photos by Jim Prisching for Hinsdale Magazine.

The gift will help Agrawal’s lab as the researchers work toward establishing early-detection tests. The novel laboratory test they are currently developing detects tumor-specific mutations in the saliva and blood of patients with head and neck cancer and has great promise for early detection.

“Ozzie always tells me that I have a valid excuse every time I come home late from work because I am saving lives,” Agrawal said. “Now, Ozzie can use the same excuse with his wife and twins because we are saving lives together.”

But it wasn’t just Agrawal’s ability to spot the cancer that made an impact on the couple. The surgeon also provided Giglio with a level of personal attention that went beyond anything he had experienced at other health care institutions. Whenever Giglio would have a question or a concern about his treatment plan, he knew he could contact Agrawal for support.

“I can’t tell you as a patient how much that means,” Giglio said of Agrawal’s responsiveness and open communication. “He was so personal and took such a direct interest in me. It was really special. When someone is that interested in what they’re doing for the right reasons, I’m going to support it as much as I can.”

Nishant Agrawal, MD

Nishant Agrawal, MD

Nishant Agrawal, MD, specializes in treating benign and malignant tumors of the head and neck. He serves as section chief of otolaryngology - head and neck surgery as well as director of head and neck surgical oncology. 

Read Dr. Agrawal's physician profile