When Joel “JB” Baker was 6 years old, he got a Mr. Microphone radio transmitter for Christmas. He taped a handful of pencils together and attached them to the wall in his bedroom as a makeshift microphone, then lugged out his family’s turntable and his older sister’s albums and began playing disc jockey.
He’s been hooked ever since.
The 47-year-old DJ has been spinning tunes in Yakima for 13 years and currently hosts afternoon programming on the local country station 104.1-FM KXDD. He’s the kind of guy, his wife says, who talks about how lucky he is to get a paycheck for doing what he loves. Sure, weekends are great, but by Sunday he can’t wait to get back to work.
But like a concert pianist who develops arthritis or a ballerina paralyzed from the waist down, Baker’s dream job is being stolen from him by his own body. Today, he’s in Seattle, where surgeons will remove most of his tongue to save him from the oral cancer they’d hoped would never come back.
“It has to work,” said his wife, Kelly Baker, on Tuesday. “It has to work, because if it doesn’t work, he won’t live.”
Baker started his career at age 19 on the overnight shift at a station in Kalispell in his home state of Montana. He worked all over Montana before heading to Seattle for broadcast school, then in 1999 got a job in Yakima. He switched to KXDD a couple years after moving here, and has been with the station ever since.
He says the listeners are the best part.
“Country listeners are very loyal people,” Baker said.
The perks are nice, too: Baker enjoys concert tickets and backstage passes to see country groups, and the chance to meet the stars — like George Strait in Tacoma once.
At KXDD’s new studio on North Third Street, he mans the airwaves from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays, selecting tunes and sharing the latest country music news and gossip with his audience. The sound booth’s state-of-the-art equipment has come quite a ways since he first started spinning, back before the tap of a keyboard was all it took to queue up a song or insert a voice track.
“At least I got to work on the new stuff for a while,” he said during his shift Tuesday, his official last day at KXDD.
Baker’s first mouth problems came in 2003, when his dentist sent him to a specialist after spotting a tongue lesion. They found pre-cancerous cells then, but he just went in for same-day surgery and got them scraped off. The same thing happened in 2006; the doctor said they would remove the problem before it turned into cancer.
But in 2012, when Kelly was pregnant with their second child, a girl, Baker’s tongue felt sore and he found some red spots. His primary care doctor told him to see the surgeon again, just to be safe, so he went and got a biopsy.
“He got a call on a Friday, the day before my baby shower. He got the call at work; he said, ‘It’s cancer. It’s not pre-cancer; it’s cancer,’” said Kelly, an advertising sales representative at the Yakima Herald-Republic. They called in a specialist who said he would have to remove about half the tongue, then take a graft from his forearm to make a “flap” for it, and then a graft from his leg to heal the arm.
He went back for the 10-hour surgery in July. The flap failed, so they took it out and left him with an open neck wound that had to heal on its own. He was in the hospital for 11 days. A few days later, when he was back in Seattle for a follow-up, Kelly went into labor three weeks early.
“He made it back just in time to watch me have our baby, then the next day a nurse came in and told us that our baby had Down syndrome,” she said. “That was a lot.”
While their baby stayed in the NICU for three weeks, Baker was undergoing radiation and eating everything blended and through a tube. Thanksgiving dinner was a challenge, Kelly said.
“We got done with that and they said, ‘If the cancer doesn’t come back within the year, you’re in the clear,’” she said.
But it did come back, in October. First the mouth pain, all over and for no reason, then ear pain. His doctors did every scan, trying to find the source, then did 34 needle biopsies. Each one came back negative. The Bakers got their hopes up, but the final test — a needle-guided CT scan — brought the dreaded news. More cancer.
This time, though, the surgeon said they couldn’t just cut off part of his tongue. This time, the cancer sits at the base of his tongue, down his throat. To access it, they have to cut him open from chin to collarbone, break his jaw and remove a portion of it, then cut out most or all of his tongue. They’ll try to replace portions of it with his thigh, Kelly said, but if the grafts don’t work this time, it could be fatal. He has to have some tissue blocking his windpipe, or anything he swallows could end up in his lungs.
The 10-hour surgery will occupy much of the day today, and Kelly anticipates he’ll be in the hospital for more than the prescribed seven to 10 days. After that comes chemotherapy or radiation.
“The doctor said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if you can’t talk again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you can,’” Kelly said. “‘But will you be able to go on the air again? I don’t know.’”
Oral cancer affects about 30,000 people in the U.S. every year, and about 8,000 die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The five-year survival rate is only about 50 percent, largely because the cancer is often discovered in the later stages.
Baker doesn’t smoke or chew tobacco or even drink much, although those behaviors are known to increase risk. Unsafe sex is also a risk factor, because the sexually transmitted disease HPV (human papilloma virus), better known for causing cervical cancer, can also cause oral cancer.
Through this ordeal, Baker and his wife have become big advocates of getting screened and being aware of any mouth sores that don’t go away quickly. They want to get the word out that oral cancer doesn’t wait around.
“If one person can be saved from what Joel’s going through, then maybe this will have been worth it,” Kelly said.
This week before the surgery, Baker planned to record two audiobooks, one for each of his kids, and take some video, too. He doesn’t know how well he’ll be able to talk afterward. He’ll have a feeding tube in his throat at first, then probably a tube in his stomach for the rest of his life.
Baker said he was down in the dumps for a while after learning the cancer was back with a vengeance. But one day, something clicked and he decided that cancer had taken enough; he wasn’t going to let it steal his happiness.
“It’s gonna suck; surgery’s gonna suck, recovery’s gonna suck; gonna have to get treatment after that, that’s gonna suck; but people do it every day,” he said. “I think about little kids going through it, too, how brave and courageous they are, and that gives me inspiration.
“My family gives me inspiration, too. I’m doing it for them, and for me, too.”
• Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.