‘Rick, you have cancer.’ What a wife and daughter want you to know about HPV

Jen Carlson | Published on October 7, 2021

Updated on January 22, 2024

Rick CarlsonAugust 1993: Three cute guys moved into the apartment next door. Little did I know that I would marry one of them six years later. At a party in May 1995, Rick and I reconnected and were inseparable after that … well, almost. Rick died 24 years later of HPV-related tonsil cancer. We had a wonderful life together, living in Manhattan Beach, moving to Boston in 2000 for work, and returning to LA in 2003. Our daughter, Julia, was born in 2004. We had everything—two successful careers, a good kid, our golden retriever. We traveled and watched sports. We especially loved watching our daughter playing Rick’s beloved sport, soccer.

In January 2018, Rick developed a cut inside his mouth that would not heal. even after antibiotics. By May 2018, Rick couldn’t open his mouth wide enough for a burger. Something was wrong. Appointments ensued. The weekend of July 16, 2018, Rick showed me his CT scan results. I immediately saw the words squamous cells and tumors. I embraced him and said, “Rick, you have cancer.” Those four words changed our lives forever.

Jen and Julia CarlsonThe next day the doctor confirmed what we knew. Treatment started August 6—three rounds of chemo, 35 rounds of radiation. The side effects hit hard and within two weeks he couldn’t work and was exhausted. Our house became a mini-medical center. It was a brutal treatment, causing extreme mucus and trismus due to scar tissue build-up. He had a feeding tube and port for me to administer hydration. Rick was a big guy—220 pounds, 6’1—and lost nearly 100 pounds. He was so sick from the treatment, but it would be worth it, right?

In December 2018, we were told Rick’s tumors had grown back, just 90 days after treatment. He was terminal. When Julia asked what the doctor said, I told her the truth—that Dad was going to die. The next two months Rick sat on the couch in his “cancer cave” and died February 2019. Julia was 14. I picked her up early from school.

She asked, “Why are you here?”

“Julia, Dad died.” She collapsed in my arms.

We received an outpouring of support; people loved Rick. He got along with everyone and was generous and kind. He loved me, but Julia was his reason for living. She felt the same. They had a unique bond.

Julia Carlson and dogs Willson and CharlieFlash forward two years later. We still feel grief, a constant crushing in our hearts from missing him. If we had known that the cut in his mouth was a sign of cancer, where would we be today? If he had been vaccinated against HPV, would he have gotten cancer?

We will never know the answers to our questions, but maybe we can prevent other families from having the same haunting questions. Know the signs of cancers that can be caused by HPV, including oral cancer. Be your own advocate. Get your kids (girls AND boys) vaccinated against HPV—some HPV-related cancers are increasing in the U.S. and about 70% of oral cancer is caused by HPV.

Julia and I are resilient and are hoping that some good comes out of our story for others. If we can save just one life, our pain is worth it. Thanks for reading our story.

*CDC March 2021


Thank you for sharing your story. I have thankfully gotten both of my children vaccinated for HPV. Will be a great day when cancer is finally eradicated. Stay Strong!


This is wonderfully written. I have now become a huge advocate for the HPV vaccine.


This sad story is beautifully written. It makes me want to cry. I can only imagine your pain. Your lovely mother is a long time friend of mine and I know she suffered along with you and Julia. Thank you for sharing this. A public service to those who listen and take advantage of preventions available.


Rick’s story is so parallel to my fiance’s, it gave me chills. Even down to Rick being a bigger guy and losing 100 lbs… my Randy was 6’3″, a SOLID (muscular) 260lbs. When he passed away only 20 months after his initial diagnosis, he had lost 95 lbs. Randy was also a strong advocate for the HPV vaccination, and got the word out to everyone he could.


Thank you for sharing your story. I grew up with Rick and his brother Dave. We played soccer together for years. Great memories. Thank you for keeping Rick’s memory alive.


Thank you for sharing Rick’s story. I was saddened to hear that cancer from HPV had taken one of the good guys. I know of other man that hopefully has won his battle . Bless your family. This is something we can protect our children from. Sharing may help save others. I was later with my teens HPV and booster vaccinate because of COVID. I would not had waivered so much knowing that took Rick. May you fondest memories bring comfort. Thanks for reminding families the future pain that can be prevented.


I’m glad that cute guy in the apartment next door had such a wonderful life with his beloved wife and daughter. I wish all of you had more years together. Thank you for sharing your story and inspiring others to get this cancer-prevention vaccine. A real dream come true!

I hope everyone realizes the age limit for the HPV vaccine has been raised to age 45 years for both men and women. Talk to your health care provider about an HPV vaccination.

The numbers of new HPV-related cancers are increasing each year, and oropharyngeal cancers are now the most common. Those are rough cancers with rough treatments; the vaccine is the easier route to choose.


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