When Allan Rosenthal shares the story of his chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) journey, you can tell that he didn’t let the word cancer hold him back. Affectionately known as “Dr. Pickleball” by friends and colleagues, he led an active lifestyle when he was diagnosed and continues to live an incredibly active life with CLL. Right before he was diagnosed in 2018, Allan noticed when he was playing doubles tennis with some men younger than him, he just couldn’t keep up with them. This unusual experience of a lack of energy spurred him to see his primary care doctor. Yet his diagnosis wasn’t a typical diagnosis – far from it. He works as a podiatrist, and his internist helped him to decipher the diagnosis.
After a laboratory blood test came back, it was revealed that Allan’s white blood cell count was elevated. His primary care doctor actually misdiagnosed his symptoms as an infection and put him on a round of antibiotics. And after his usual internist returned from vacation, he thought right away that Allan had CLL and sent him to see a hematologist/oncologist. As Allan remembers, “My doctor said, ‘You’re not going to die from this. You’re going to do the watch and wait or watch and worry.’”
Like many cancer patients, Allan’s diagnosis brought concerns beyond his health. “I was worried about the financial burden. Through organizations like PEN, my oncology unit, and the social workers at my hospital I have received help.” A nurse from the pharmaceutical company also calls him every month or two to just check to see how he’s doing in terms of both physical and financial concerns.
As a physician, he’s well aware of patients’ ambiguity with their care, and it’s always good to gain knowledge. Allan has recommendations for other patients, “It’s good to have someone with you at appointments. My wife is a nurse practitioner and is also a former oncology nurse, but it’s still tough to keep up with all the improvements going on in the field of CLL.”
Allan was diagnosed in the spring and was fine until later on that summer. The lymph nodes in his neck started to swell, and he went to his oncologist who informed him about the medication ibrutinib (Imbruvica). Allan says of starting his CLL treatment, “I remember taking the medication on a Friday and then going to play golf the next day with a friend. Pretty quickly I had the energy I used to have. Now I play pickleball, golf, platform tennis in the winter, and I ski. I just bought a Peloton bike during the pandemic that’s really helped me. I have no side effects from the medication. I’m living my life.”
As for his CLL treatment, he thinks of ibrutinib in the same way that someone with diabetes or hypertension would take medication for a chronic condition. His CLL medication has allowed him to live with CLL as a manageable condition rather than dealing with common side effects that many cancer patients deal with. Allan has also learned that educating himself about CLL is vital even for someone with a medical background. He’s experienced the value of patient education. And after he learned about the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) from his oncology team in Connecticut, Allan shares, “I also know from PEN that there are other medications if this doesn’t work out. And I’ll go from there. PEN is keeping me educated to the fact that there is ongoing research, and there are other avenues; it’s not a death sentence.”
When he was first diagnosed, despite his and his wife’s medical backgrounds, Allan felt scared and depressed. He spoke with a friend in the medical field who said, “My father and uncle have CLL. If you start fretting about it, I’m going to wring your neck. They’ve been living with it for years, and it’s not that big of a deal.” He’s since come across more and more people in his life living well with CLL thanks to their efforts to become educated and proactive in managing their diagnosis, which continues to encourage him.
Allan credits PEN with helping him in his CLL journey, “PEN has educated me further along than if I went at this alone. Dr. Google is not exactly the best source of information, and Dr. Facebook isn’t a reliable source either.” Allan looks for reliable sources, “PEN is where I can get questions answered and get the proper answers from knowledgeable people in the oncology field.”
During his CLL journey, Allan has received valuable advice from others and is now happy to be in a position to help other CLL patients. His advice for other CLL patients? “Live your life. Be active. Staying active helps tremendously. And don’t panic. Everybody has the tendency to go crazy. It’s the big C word. I was scared also. I didn’t know what this was all going to mean. But as my oncologist told me, ‘You’re not going to die from this. We can take care of it. Just don’t panic.’”