UNC Health Talk

Nelson Corbin: Leaning Forward in the Foxhole of Life

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Command Sgt. Major Nelson Corbin has always lived life leaning forward in the foxhole. He fights cancer the same way.

“Cancer is an enemy that I don’t know anything about,” said Corbin, 57, of Parkton, N.C., in Robeson County. “I don’t know its tactics or its capabilities. It scares the hell out of me, and I don’t scare easily. So I’m learning about it and assaulting it with everything I have. I don’t win by sitting back. I’ve always been a leaning-forward-in-the-foxhole-kind-of-a-guy. That isn’t changing.”

Corbin, a career Special Forces officer with the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg, was on assignment in Central America when he was diagnosed with cancer in his right tonsil with lymph node involvement in his neck in January 2012. Between 10,000 and 20,000 cases of this rare cancer are diagnosed each year with some clinicians calling it an epidemic. Many of these cancers, including Corbin’s, test positive for the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Efforts to confirm the diagnosis and be treated proved elusive until he arrived at UNC Hospitals in early November.

“Military and civilian hospitals between my post and Fort Bragg didn’t have all the elements I needed — experts trained in the treatment of this type of cancer, the drugs or the radiation — all in one place,” Corbin said. “At UNC Hospitals, the whole package is here. They are the real deal.

“I work in a teamwork world, where it’s all about getting the job done,” Corbin said. “Many times that involves having one shot to get it done right. Treating my cancer is one shot. My team at UNC is cohesive and dynamic and their mentality about healing is uncommon. And always I am treated like another professional in the room.”

Corbin began the first of 35 radiation treatments and eight chemotherapy treatments on Nov. 26. He finished up on Jan. 25, a little later than hoped or expected due to treatment side effects.

“The treatment of head and neck cancers can cause a lot of acute side effects that are not pleasant,” said Bhishamjit S. Chera, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology and lead radiologist on Corbin’s team. “Fortunately, here at UNC we have the expertise and the people to take care of them. At a minimum, eight people followed Nelson every week so that we stayed on top of the side effects before something became a problem.”

In addition to experts in chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, team members include a nutritionist, a swallowing therapist, a speech therapist and experts in supportive care who address the anxiety that too often gets in the way of treatment, especially among patients from the military, Dr. Chera said.

“Giving radiation for head and neck cancer requires that the patient have a custom-fitted mask so that the patient can’t move and disrupt the precise path of the radiation,” Dr. Chera said. “It’s well documented that because of their training and experiences patients with Special Forces backgrounds are especially prone to claustrophobia and anxiety due to the mask. Nelson was no exception, and he’s conquered that hurdle well.”

Having a feeding tube inserted on Christmas Eve wasn’t Nelson’s idea of a nice gift, “but it’s the saving grace for maintaining my weight,” he said, noting he had lost more than 32 pounds from his normal 240-pound frame. He trusts that muscle memory will help him regain his strength and stamina sooner rather than later as he begins rehabilitation.

“Nelson is a highly motivated goal-oriented person who will do everything he can to finish what he started,” Dr. Chera said. “His tolerance for pain and his willpower are unbelievable. With his military background he’s the top of the top mentally and physically, and he tells me this treatment is the hardest thing he’s ever done.”

While in Chapel Hill, Nelson stayed at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

Joining him there at different times over the two months of treatment were his wife, Jan, 55, a middle school reading and special-needs teacher, who has been married to her high school sweetheart for 36 years; their daughter, Allison, 33; and their son, Chris, 35, a Ranger/Special Forces.

While fellow residents were drawn to talk to all of the Corbins, it was the Nelson-Chris duo that turned heads at Family House and at UNC Hospitals.

Chris lost both his legs below the knees when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan in February 2011. Nelson, who also was in Afghanistan on a separate mission, flew to his son’s side and stayed with him during his transport to and recovery at Walter Reed Medical Center.

Within four months and two weeks of his injury — more than a year earlier than was predicted or expected by his medical team and wearing prosthetic legs — Chris drove himself from Washington, D.C., to Fort Bragg. His canine co-worker Ax, who survived the explosion, is still his constant companion, adding the role of service dog to his resume.

“We Corbins don’t do defeat well,” said Chris, matter-of-factly and exhibiting the genuine drive to live life at the extremes that he clearly inherited from Nelson. “I was having a blast, then I had a blast. It could have been worse. I could have been lying on the device, not just stepping on it. If you are still breathing, you can talk about it. But I don’t need to dwell on it. I wear shorts so we don’t have to talk about my legs.”

It’s that attitude that makes Chris a motivator to all he meets, military and non-military alike, Nelson said.

“Any time you are in an environment where people are dealing with serious illness or traumatic injury, you want to see success, and Chris is a success by every measure,” Nelson said. “With his injuries, everything post-injury was unknown. I know what my post-treatment is going to be, and so does he. He’s making sure I can focus on the treatment I need so I’m back in the game, getting on with life.”

For both Chris and Nelson getting on with life includes scuba diving, sky diving, triathlons and marathons, hobbies the father and son have always enjoyed and continued to do after Chris lost his legs.

“We were smart enough to make the decision a long time ago that we would have personalities and interests outside of being a soldier so that we could share more things,” Nelson said. “It gives us more face time. That’s just us, it’s what we do.”

But the cross-country motorcycle trip Nelson and Chris meticulously planned over the two months of Nelson’s treatment will have to wait a little while longer. Chris received a promotion in January that came with a relocation and increased responsibilities. Above all, duty calls.