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MPN Patient Profile: Robyn Rourick Part 2

Read the first part of Robyn’s MPN journey here…

Picking up after 26 years of watchful monitoring of her myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN), scientist Robyn Rourick was then referred for an allogeneic stem cell transplant by her MPN specialist, Dr. Gotlib. The transplant team started working through the matching process for a bone marrow transplant donor, which often begins with close biological relatives. Although Robyn’s only sibling wasn’t a transplant match, a person considered a near perfect transplant match for Robyn was found.

At that point in her journey, the possibility of entering a Phase II clinical trial called ORCA-1 was presented by Robyn’s transplant doctor. She discovered that the ORCA-1 treatment had the potential to completely eliminate graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). The clinical trial made sense to her. In Robyn’s trained scientific mind, she agreed that the trial was founded on sound scientific rationale with the potential for clear benefit and signed up for it. She researched other things like whether the transplant team could look at biomarkers to guard against graft-versus-host disease, but she decided to take the clinical trial path as her best option.

As for her feelings about the stem cell transplant, Robyn felt there was likely going to be a positive outcome for her due to the ORCA-1 clinical trial. Her knowledge about the trial really brought her a lot of comfort and put her at ease for the time she’d be around her family post-transplant. Robyn was lucky because her doctor was actually the primary investigator on the study. When he presented the transplant study as an option, that’s when she started to do more searching to find what patient advocacy groups were out there.

Looking back on her MPN journey, Robyn wishes that physicians would provide their patients with more patient advocacy resources, such as those available through organizations like Patient Empowerment Network (PEN). She feels fortunate that she discovered PEN through another patient advocacy website, and she firmly believes in PEN’s mission of empowering patients to gain knowledge to advocate on their own behalf. “I had the realization that in the clinical trial I was in, I was only the sixth patient, and the technology was stellar in terms of what we’re trying to do in terms of cell therapy. I just felt like patients need to know about the treatment advancements, and PEN is an excellent resource for learning about treatment and support options that I wanted to share my knowledge and patient experience with.” 

Robyn was fortunate to have a team of physicians in whose knowledge and treatment recommendations she could trust. She’s  tremendously grateful, because she knows it’s not always the case, and so offers this advice for others, “Make sure that you’re comfortable with your physicians. And if not, then move on. Don’t be afraid to reach out and to make other connections to other doctors, even across the globe. You shouldn’t hesitate to request a conference call with another provider to see if they’re aligned with your diagnosis and your watchful waiting or treatment recommendations. Patients must have the utmost confidence going through their cancer journey.”

As for the scientists who handled her sample in the ORCA-1 trial, Robyn was able to meet the scientists and saw the analytical data of her sample. She was highly impressed with the protocols that they used with the samples. Robyn was just the sixth myelofibrosis patient to join the trial. To have spent her life working on medicines for patients and then to be on the receiving end of this cutting-edge treatment for transplants made her feel very privileged. 

In her life post-transplant, Robyn has continued periodic blood work for routine monitoring and has been doing well. Two years following her transplant, Robyn’s myelofibrosis is in remission, and she has no evidence of fibrosis in her bone marrow. Her test numbers have been progressing nicely, and she hasn’t needed any additional treatment since undergoing the transplant. “I don’t have a single regret. I haven’t had a pimple, an itch, a scratch, absolutely nothing. My life has resumed exactly how it was before the transplant.”

In reflecting on her patient experience, Robyn offers this additional advice to other cancer patients, “Take a deep breath and give it some time to play out. The moment that I heard the word cancer and the risks with rapid progression, I had myself dead and buried. In my mind, what I needed to plan for was death. Prepare my family. Get everything in order. And to me, that was going to be the ultimate outcome. But then as things unfolded, I had conversations, did a little bit of research, and found out I did have some options. Things weren’t so negative in terms of progression and mortality. Don’t jump to the most negative outcome possible.”

MPN Patient Profile: Robyn Rourick Part 1

Though Robyn Rourick is a scientist by training and works for a biotechnology company, she took a mind-body approach to her myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) journey. The time that passed between Robyn’s initial MPN diagnosis and when she finally needed treatment was incredibly – and nearly shockingly – long. She was diagnosed with essential thrombocythemia (ET) 26 years after elevated platelets were shown on a routine blood test. After she saw a hematologist, they performed a bone marrow biopsy and concluded she didn’t have myelofibrosis and received the ET diagnosis. Robyn recalls of the time of her diagnosis, “I didn’t know about myeloproliferative disorders. Not many people did at the time. Nobody mentioned that I could potentially have an MPN.” 

Robyn’s blood levels were monitored over the years, and her platelets started to decrease. Though she didn’t realize at the time, her platelets were decreasing because her bone marrow was becoming more fibrotic. She was also tested for the early gene mutations (JAK2) that were discovered as more MPN research occurred but tested negative . She later switched to another hematologist who was very tuned into the gene connections. He looked at Robyn’s medical data comprehensively and was extremely attentive to any minor changes. As her blastocytes began shifting, he urged her to go see MPN specialist Dr. Gotlib. Dr. Gotlib did further analyses and classified her as having myelofibrosis, noting that when she was diagnosed with ET that her original healthcare team also couldn’t have  ruled out pre-fibrotic myelofibrosis at that time. Fortunately, Dr. Gotlib stated if he had diagnosed her with her original blood test 26 years prior, he would have recommended to simply watch and wait while monitoring Robyn’s blood levels on a regular basis. 

Although Robyn felt healthy and had no symptoms besides an enlarged spleen, as Dr. Gotlib dug deeper into her genetic profile, he found a unique mutation that suggested she was at risk for an escalation into acute myeloid leukemia mutation. He recommended Robyn for an immediate allogeneic stem cell transplant for her MPN treatment.    

Robyn then learned that graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) was a major concern for the transplant process, which can be debilitating. So she began to seek patient advocacy resources to inform her MPN journey. “I felt desperate and wanted to meet people who had myelofibrosis who successfully came through transplant. I didn’t want to just talk to a transplant person with a different disease.” Robyn went through some patient connection programs – including Be the Match, Caring Connections Program, and Patient Power – and was able to meet a few people and became quite close with one patient. 

She learned that even though transplant will cure your disease, doctors don’t always elaborate with patients on the potential for a compromised lifestyle due to  graft-versus-host disease. Sometimes patients will come through transplant in worse condition than before the treatment. Robyn had major fears about going through transplant and being able to work and do her extracurricular activities post-transplant. “I felt like I was going to be a letdown for my family and colleagues and didn’t tell my work until I was preparing to go out on leave, which in retrospect was silly.” After telling her manager, Robyn was given complete support, and realized she could have avoided carrying so much anxiety.

“For me, self-education and advocacy are important to enable yourself to have conversations about what’s possible in terms of your treatment. You don’t have to develop an in-depth understanding, but enough to have the ability to be conversational. If you’re proposed a certain pathway, it’s good to know enough to ask why. And if you’ve done some research on your own, then you can ask why not an alternate treatment approach. I think it’s really important to have some knowledge, because it builds your confidence to be able to move forward with what’s being proposed.” 

“Give it time, allow yourself to digest the information, have conversations about it, and develop your own understanding. At first, I was very closed about my diagnosis. I told my immediate family, and I told one very close friend who had gone through autologous transplant. The more that I began to talk about it and the more that I included people in the story, the easier my journey became.” Robyn also saw a cancer therapist who made some really good points to her. “She told me that ‘we’re all going to die of something, but most of us don’t know what that really looks like.’” In Robyn’s case, she had the opportunity to learn more about her disease, guide it, and direct her journey. And that opened up a whole new perspective.

The cancer therapist walked Robyn through some exercises: “What is it you’re afraid of? What do you have control over? Allowing yourself to gain control over some things will build your confidence that you can do this.” Robyn also encourages other patients to engage their network of friends and family and realize that it’s okay to depend on people. It’s not your fault that you have this diagnosis. Getting over the apprehension of telling people about your diagnosis and embracing help from others are key pieces of advice.

Robyn views patient empowerment as essential to the patient journey. She discovered Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) through another patient advocacy website and felt it brought her MPN patient experience full circle in terms of learning what’s available. “As I’m learning more about PEN, I’m just dazzled by the different forums they have to enable knowledge transfer, support systems, and advocacy.” 

Read the second part of Robyn’s MPN journey here…

CLL Patient Profile: Allan Rosenthal

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.’”

Patient Profile: Vanessa Steil

“PEN builds community and empowers you to be your own advocate.” – Vanessa Steil, thyroid cancer survivor and patient advocate.

When Vanessa Steil recounts how she was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer, you can tell it is a story she has told many times. The dates, the terminology, and which doctor told her what and when are all precisely chronicled in her memory. Yet it took her reflecting on her story as a survivor to process just how crucial all of the details were. Now, she’s passionate and committed to helping others, and she has dedicated much of her time—and career— over the past eight years to doing just that.

It all started in March 2013 during a routine visit to the gynecologist. The doctor, who performed a neck check as part of the exam, felt a lump on the right side of Vanessa’s thyroid. “I was taken off guard by the whole thing,” she says. She tried to convince herself that the lump was nothing serious, but she followed the doctor’s advice for further testing, and a month later was diagnosed with papillary thyroid carcinoma: thyroid cancer. She was 26 years old. “My whole world changed with just three words. In an instant, I went from feeling like a normal person to having to absorb all this new medical jargon,” she says.

It was a difficult time for Vanessa. She was young, she didn’t know anyone else her age who had cancer, and she didn’t know anyone with thyroid cancer. While she had support from friends and family, at the end of the day she felt very much alone. As the weeks passed by and her mind raced on, she began to second-guess her diagnosis, question whether she should have surgery, and considered having another biopsy. “I had to work through the emotional aspects of my diagnosis, including coming to grips with the fact that I had thyroid cancer and the fear I felt about the outcome,” she explains. “You have to be in a positive place when you are going to have surgery.” Fortunately, her cancer was not overly aggressive, and she was able to delay the surgery until she felt more prepared.

By June 2013, she was ready for surgery and had a total thyroidectomy that included the removal of six lymph nodes, one of which was positive for cancer. The surgery was successful, and so far, she hasn’t required any radiation therapy, a common follow-up treatment post thyroid cancer. While in 2017 her antithyroglobulin levels, a marker that can be used to monitor a possible cancer recurrence in those with an autoimmune condition, went up and remained that way, she continues to be monitored. Her bloodwork and scans are done twice a year, and once a year she has a neck ultrasound; each time she experiences what survivors call “scanxiety” until she gets an all clear from the results.

When Vanessa was diagnosed, her endocrinologist gave her a key piece of advice that she didn’t completely understand at the time, but it stuck with her, and the meaning soon became clear. He told her, “Don’t turn this diagnosis into a research project.” As someone who is naturally curious and was eager to learn all she could about her disease, as soon as she was diagnosed, Vanessa took to “Dr. Google” looking for information and answers, but she wasn’t always finding helpful information. “While online, I was landing on horror stories,” she says, adding that while it is important to be knowledgeable about your disease, it is imperative to get accurate information and to be careful about choosing which sites or social media outlets to use as resources. “The Internet can be a scary rabbit hole, and it can cause unnecessary worry,” she says. “Finding a reputable site, like Patient Empowerment Network (PEN), that’s done a lot of the legwork for you and has comprehensive resources available is invaluable,” she says. Vanessa especially appreciates that PEN helps prepare patients for doctor visits by providing a list of questions to ask and offers relevant insight to caregivers, and survivors. “I was impressed with the PEN content, because it helps the patient from diagnosis to recovery,” she says. She also recommends sites that offer a sense of community where you can interact with other patients who have had similar experiences. “PEN builds community and empowers you to be your own advocate,” she says. “You have to know your body and speak up for yourself. That’s where the community aspect comes in. As a survivor, I try to provide that sense of community for others.”

After her surgery, Vanessa found a creative outlet that allows her to provide support for others and helped her through her own recovery. She created a lifestyle and wellness blog, Living in Steil (pronounced style), where she shares her personal journey and favorite resources as well as beauty, food, fitness, and health and wellness information. She says she was inspired to start the blog in February 2014, while recovering from surgery and trying to put the pieces of her life back together. “You don’t often process the emotional aspects of cancer until later,” she says. “It’s been cathartic to blog about my experience and have the site resonate with so many other patients and survivors.”

Her work as a blogger has led to many more opportunities to share her story including being asked to participate in a book, Tough: Women who Survived Cancer by Marquina Iliev-Piselli and collaborations with other advocacy groups in the healthcare space. In addition to her blog, Vanessa is a health coach and Board Certified Patient Advocate who also works for a pancreatic cancer foundation where she manages public relations and social media. She credits her diagnosis with helping her find her career niche and a meaningful role that allows her to make a difference in the lives of patients every day.

As far as her cancer is concerned, technically she is in remission, but says she is vigilant about staying on top of her health. “I have never taken my survivor status for granted,” she says. She continues to be her own advocate and has found that sometimes means she needs to find new doctors. If they are not listening to her or are not open to communication, she knows it’s time to move on. “It’s important to find a doctor who takes your concerns to heart,” she says.

Through Vanessa’s own experience with cancer, she’s learned a lot about advocating for herself and others. Vanessa has experienced firsthand what works and what doesn’t, and she is grateful to be able to share her knowledge. “If I can bridge the gap for people with a cancer diagnosis and make it easier for them to get the resources they need, then that is rewarding for me,” she says. “I had a difficult diagnosis, but I learned from my challenges and now I can share that knowledge with others. I can’t think of a better way to pay it forward than that.”

Read more about Vanessa and follow along with her journey at www.livinginsteil.com or on social media at @livinginsteil.


Read more patient stories here.

Patient Profile: Ben’s Diagnosis of Oral Cancer

Ben has an amazing story. It’s a story of resilience, determination, hope, and perseverance. A story about gaining knowledge and actively participating in the treatment and care of his cancer. In short, this is the story of an Empowered Patient and how he fought for his own life.   

Ben is a 35-year-old single male from New Zealand. A highly intelligent, successful professional whose storybook perfect life came to a sudden jolt in October 2018 when he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. He underwent the surgery to remove most of his tongue, along with a dissection of the left side of the neck. A pathology result revealed a squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue. It also showed that 2 lymph nodes in the left side of his neck were positive for cancer. Per standard treatment protocol, Ben was given radiation therapy after the surgery without a concurrent chemotherapy. There is a growing evidence in the literature that, in such cases where the cancer had spread to the regional lymph nodes, post-surgery chemotherapy given concurrently with radiation therapy reduces the chance of the local recurrence of the disease.  The obvious drawback being that, while this dual attack may be tougher on the cancer, it is also tougher on the patient.  It is my hope that, someday, this standard protocol may change. However, as of right now, it still is the standard of treatment to give just radiation following surgery as it happened in Ben’s case. Unfortunately, it did not work so well.  

Hardly six months after completing this treatment, he had a recurrence of cancer in the left side of his neck in the area of those positive lymph nodes six months ago So, his cancer had come back.  A second surgery was done to remove the cancerous lymph nodes followed by another radiation treatment.  His first radiation treatment was given to both sides of his neck as it should’ve been. This time it was limited to the left side of the neck. This time, he did receive a chemo drug but for 2 doses only 

While he was recovering, Ben came across the story of Dianaas posted on PEN website. Ben happened to know Diana and thought that since Diana responded so well to Keytruda (Pembrolizumab), he would take Keytruda himself. He decided to pay for it out of his own pocket since it was not covered by the health plan. Keytruda is a wonderful medicine, but it’s not a magic pill or a cure-all and does not always work and did not in Ben’s case.  About 4 months after finishing the radiation treatment, poor Ben had another recurrence of the cancer, this time on the right side of the neck. Naturally, he was devastated because he thought that Keytruda had failed him.   

 By this time, Ben and I had been talking about what he should do if the cancer were to came back again. Based upon the information derived from the literature, we felt that he had to have a full dose of chemotherapy concurrent with radiation, either without the surgery or following a surgery. Ben decided that he would like to have that lymph node removed and so the third surgery was performed.   

Following the surgery, Ben underwent a concurrent administration of radiation and chemotherapy. He received Cisplatin, which is a very effective chemotherapy drug in the form of 6 weekly doses while also receiving radiation 5 days a week for 6 weeks. Treatments were completed around March of 2020. 

 It has been about 10 months since, as of February 2021 and, as far as we know, Ben is still cancer-free. For him, this is the longest remission so far. He feels healthy, strong & energetic and is working full-time and enjoying his life. The only problem is that he is so scared of finding another setback that he refuses to go for a follow-up scan, that was due long time ago. I continue to work with Ben to convince him to have the scan done because if the cancer comes back, the sooner we find it, the better we can attack it. I emphasize that another recurrence, while quite unsettling, will not be the end of the road for him and that newer & better treatment options are being discovered all the time.   

Ben had to deal with a whole lot of other medical problems during the past couple of years. Problems that resulted from his cancer and/or his cancer treatments. He developed a great deal of difficulty with swallowing and speech after his tongue surgery, as expected. 

Following his second surgery, Ben developed a paralysis of his left vocal cord. He could hardly speak beyond whispersOur ability to produce voice is dependent upon the movement of the two vocal cords as they rhythmically move to midline to touch each other and then move apart.  When one vocal cord is paralyzed and cannot move to midline, a firm contact between the 2 cords cannot be established, thus an ineffective voice. 

Ben went to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor who injected a filler substance called Radiesseinto his paralyzed vocal cord. This is meant to thicken it so that the opposite & healthy vocal cord can make contact with the paralyzed one and produce sounds.   

That procedure was less than satisfactory for Ben. His doctor recommended a bigger procedure, a surgery, called Medialization of the Vocal Cord. This involves pushing the paralyzed vocal cord towards the midline by stuffing something behind it. The doctor explained to Ben that he was not sure if this surgical procedure would work any better than the temporary injection of a fillerLuckily, I was able to help Ben. I agreed with his doctor that this surgery may not give a satisfactory result.  I suggested that he should consider getting an additional surgical procedure, called Arytenoid Adduction.  I had been through something similar. The problem with Ben’s vocal cords was not just the paralysis of the left vocal cord, but that both vocal cords were situated at an angle. So, when the doctor fattened the paralyzed vocal cord, it still could not make a firm enough contact with the healthy cord. Arytenoid Adduction surgery straightens the angle of the vocal cords and, combined with the medialization procedure, restores the near normal voice. However, it seemed that Ben’s ENT doctor was not very familiar with this procedure 

So, while he was dealing with his other medical issues, Ben and I were working to find if there was a surgeon in New Zealand who would do the Arytenoid Adduction surgery. Finally, after Ben’s third surgery, when he seemed to be in remission, he decided to tackle the problem of his voice. He found the right surgeon and went for the surgery. It did not go well. 

A most unfortunate complication occurred while undergoing anesthesia and Ben stopped breathing. He had to be resuscitated and an opening was created in his trachea to enable him to breathe.  Obviously, the surgery was abandoned with the recommendation that it be attempted again after a few weeks or months. 

 Ben, being very smart personwondered if now would be the better time for the surgery while he still had the opening in his trachea to prevent a similar complication.  I wholeheartedly agreed with his reasoning and suggested that he present it to his doctors. So, he had the second surgery done within 10 days. There were no complications with his breathing this time because he already had an opening in his trachea. The surgery was successfully performed. The trachea opening was closed and Ben has a nice and clear voice now which he is very happy about.   

His bad luck did not stop though because somewhere along the way, he also developed a severe stomach issue called Gastric Dumping Syndrome due to a possible nerve damage during the neck surgery.   This condition causes nausea, bloated feeling, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Luckily, as it often happens in these cases, after some time, his stomach regained its function.   

As is often the case in cancer patients, Ben has suffered from periods of depression. He has handled it very well by seeking the professional help and taking antidepressant medicines. He has valiantly fought through all of his challenges with his intelligence, determination, knowledge, and persistence.  

I think that we all need to admire Ben’s tenacity and his never-ending hope. Recently, he has had genomic studies done on his cancer. Based on the result of those tests, we know that there are certain mutations of the cancer that can be targeted if and when it rears its’ ugly head again. We have options if needed. 

 So, this is the story of a truly empowered patient and how he has changed his prognosis and the course of his illness often as a result of his own initiative Not only by cooperating with his doctors, but becoming more knowledgeable about his illness and actively participating in his treatment decisions.  This activism as a patient has often led to a better treatment outcome.   

This is what Patient Empowerment Network is all about. Hope, determination and knowledgeRemember, the knowledge is your superpower.   


Disclaimer: Sajjad Iqbal, MD is a retired physician and rare cancer survivor who routinely supports, mentors and guides other patients through their perilous cancer journeys. Any opinions, suggestions, or advice provided is solely from Dr. Iqbal’s perspective as a well-informed and knowledgeable cancer patient, not as a physician. The patients must discuss their health with their own doctors and follow their advice.  

Family Member Profile: Alison Greenhill

Family-Member Profile
Alison Greenhill
Pancreatic Cancer

It’s been little more than a year since Alison Greenhill lost her husband Richard to pancreatic cancer. Richard was 47 at the time of his death and the couple had been married for 18 years. They had a tortoiseshell cat named Nibbles. Richard was a Registered Nurse and Alison worked for and continues to work for a major airline. Despite a history of Crohn’s disease, Richard was a generally healthy guy so when he started complaining of stomach pains in September 2016 he was referred to a gastroenterologist.

The couple had just returned home from a cruise and Richard’s stomach pains were severe enough to send him to the hospital, but all the test results done by the gastroenterologist were negative. The doctors didn’t know what was causing the pain, but it continued through December when Richard was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis as a possible result of Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease that can cause abdominal pain and lead to a host of other issues so the diagnosis made sense.

But, in January Richard was back in the hospital with jaundice and he received a couple of stents to relieve bile duct blockage. He also had a number of tests done including an MRI and several lab and blood tests, but there still seemed to be no definitive answer as to what was causing Richard to be so sick. Alison recalls being frustrated that they still didn’t have more answers and says she felt like things were moving at a snail’s pace. Richard, she says, thought his symptoms indicated cancer, but on his birthday, also in January, they were told that Richard did not have cancer. “When they said it wasn’t cancer, it was his birthday,” says Alison. “We couldn’t have gotten better news.”

Ten days later Richard started vomiting and was back in the hospital with a blood infection. Alison says he recovered from the infection, but that it had almost killed him and that doctors were still saying they weren’t sure what was wrong. Finally, at the end of February Richard got referred to the Mayo clinic. Alison says they got there on a Thursday and by Friday evening the oncology department had been added to Richard’s daily report. Richard had stage four, pancreatic cancer that had metastasized. “It was the worst possible diagnosis with the worst possible cancer,” says Alison. “We were just numb.”

The Mayo Clinic oncologist suggested Richard start chemotherapy and referred him to a local oncologist who took over his case. Two weeks later, in March, he started chemo. During chemo, Alison says his numbers were going down, but Richard had a bowel blockage, another bout of jaundice, and an infection that interrupted his chemo. They learned that the tumor was covering his pancreas and he had another tumor on his liver. By the end of June he was in Hospice care. Richard remained positive through it all, says Alison. “My husband was like a rock. I don’t know how he did it,” she says adding that Richard made peace with his diagnosis. “We decided we were going to handle things the best we could.”

After his death, Alison says she had a lot of ups and downs and a lot of anger, but that, through Hospice, she got a grief counselor who helped her through each step of her grief. “She was wonderful from the beginning,” says Alison who focuses on remaining positive rather than letting herself get caught up in questioning why they were told Richard didn’t have cancer and why his cancer wasn’t found sooner. “I wish we would have known more. We didn’t know what we were working with,” says Alison, but she knows they did the best they could at the time. “I can’t keep going backward,” she says. “I would never be able to move forward.”

Along with the grief counselor and exercise, which she says helps her to stay positive and outgoing, Alison says she learned to accept help from others. “You have to let people do things for you. As time went on I realized I can’t do this by myself,” she says. Alison received a lot of help from her parents and had a strong support group. “Lean on your family. Let people help you,” she advises. Although it’s been difficult reaching each milestone or holiday throughout the year she says, “I’m better than I was a year ago.”

Now, Alison says it is important to her that others might benefit from what she and Richard went through. “I pray every day that no one else has to go through this,” she says. Richard also hoped his story might help others. “He said that he hoped one day we could help someone else,” she says. “He said people can learn from this.”

Alison wants people to hear her story and know they aren’t alone, but more importantly she wants people to do whatever it takes to get answers.“You’ve really got to speak up for the patient,” emphasizes Alison. “If you don’t have the answers and the doctors don’t give you the answers, don’t take no for an answer. Take it to the next level.” Alison says that patients and caregivers shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and to push for more information. She says, “Keep fighting for your person.”

Patient Profile: Jennifer Maxfield

Patient Profile

Jennifer Maxfield

Cervical Cancer

Jennifer Maxfield describes herself as a very private person. It’s hard for her to share her story. It’s emotional and it’s out of her comfort zone, but she’s starting to get a little more comfortable with it because she likes the idea of helping others. “That my story may be beneficial for someone else down the road is kind of cool for me,” she says.

If heeded, her story really is likely to help others. Hers is a cautionary tale, because her cancer is one that may have been preventable. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2016. She’d gone to the doctor on her lunch break for a routine gynecological check up and during the exam Jennifer recalls the doctor saying, “Whoah. That’s strange.” Her doctor brought some colleagues in to confirm her hunch and Jennifer was immediately referred to a cancer specialist.

A runner and avid tennis player, Jennifer was young and healthy and never expected a cancer diagnosis, but, “I’m healthy,” she says, “not diligent.” You see, it had been a few years since Jennifer had been to see a doctor. It had been long enough that even her boss noticed and it was at her boss’s suggestion that she’d gone for her exam that day.

The good news was that it was a relatively slow-growing cancer and it was isolated. Jennifer’s doctor felt positive that after treatment there would be no recurrence. She wouldn’t need chemotherapy and radiation, but she would need a radical hysterectomy. “It was the absolute recommendation,” Jennifer says. There was another surgery option, but due to the size of her cancer, the success rate was compromised and the cancer was likely to return and then spread. Neither Jennifer nor her doctor wanted to take that risk. Her surgery was October 2016, three months after diagnosis.

But, here’s the thing, Jennifer was 33 at the time she was diagnosed. She hadn’t yet had children and a hysterectomy meant she would not be able to get pregnant. That’s where it gets emotional for her. “That was the scariest moment when all my family left, when the doctor left and I was there coping with this drastic change,” she says. “It was a high price to pay.”

Jennifer doesn’t want anyone else to have to pay that price. She stresses the importance of going to the doctor for regular check ups, but she also emphasizes the need for awareness about the the human papillomavirus (HPV) which is the likely cause of her cancer. “It’s something kids can get vaccinated for,” she says. “You can prevent it.” Jennifer says she knows the vaccinations aren’t right for every family, but she hopes people will talk to their doctors and ask about the risks and possible prevention options for HPV.

Every once in a while the magnitude of what she had to give up strikes her, “but I don’t let myself get weighed down by that one thing,” she says. In fact, she says she feels really lucky and thankful for her family and her support network and she’s looking forward to her twin sister starting a family. “I’m hoping my sister gets pregnant,” she says. “I’d love to be an aunt.” She also hasn’t given up on motherhood. She and her sister are adopted so that feels like a very real option for her at some point.

In the meantime she sees her doctor every three months. At the two year mark she’ll do check ups every six months. She’s returned to running and tennis, she’s gone back to school, and she’s moving forward. “I just love my thirties,” she says. “I’m grateful for every single thing.”

Patient Profile: Kirk Beck

Patient Profile

Kirk Beck

Prostate and Head and Neck Cancer

What is significant to Kirk Beck is not that he’s had cancer. He delivers his story with minimal detail about his diagnosis, his treatment, and the subsequent life-threatening complications he endured as casually as he might tell you what he had for breakfast. It’s not until his wife Kelly joins the conversation that the full impact of Kirk’s medical history becomes clear.

“He wouldn’t have lived to be 50,” says Kelly of the first time Kirk was diagnosed with cancer. They weren’t married then, but it’s not lost on Kelly that their marriage never would have happened if he hadn’t survived. “It was caught very early and he was lucky,” she says. What’s lucky is that Kirk’s prostate cancer was detected at all. It was the mid-90s and he was 44, much too young to have a prostate screening in those days, but Kirk had a friend with the disease so during a routine physical he insisted, despite his doctor’s protest, that he get tested.

That test ultimately resulted in his diagnosis and a radical prostatectomy. Through the help of his brother, a physician, he sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital where the surgery was done using the “nerve-sparing” technique — which helped prevent side effects such as urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction. The surgery was a success, the cancer hadn’t metastasized, and Kirk didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation. “I got operated on and came home,” he says and in the 20 plus years since he’s had no recurrence or side effects.

He did, however, get another cancer diagnosis. This time he had tonsil cancer in October 2005. Within days his tonsil became extremely swollen. He had surgery the next month, followed by chemotherapy and radiation which was accompanied by a drug designed to protect his salivary glands from the radiation. This time there were complications. By New Year’s Eve he was back in the hospital and then again, after his second round of chemo, at the end of January 2006. He had what he calls episodes of extreme pain. “It was excruciating. Unbearable,” he says.

What he had was a blood clot, portal vein thrombosis, which is a rare condition to which he had a very rare reaction, and his small intestine had begun to die. He was unable to digest food and was vomiting a lot. His body had created what is known as collateral veins which were enough to keep him alive, but not enough to prevent damage to his small intestine. The hospital told Kelly that there was nothing more they could do. He was too high risk for surgery, they said. She was advised to contact hospice care.

“If I had listened to them, he would be dead. I just knew deep down this wasn’t supposed to be happening this way,” says Kelly, who instead of calling hospice called Kirk’s brother, the doctor, and got Kirk back to Johns Hopkins where they were able to save his life.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Kirk required intensive and careful treatment of his clot, continued radiation for his cancer treatment, and surgery to remove the damaged area of his small intestine. The process was scary and daunting and full of unpleasant details, but that is not what Kirk chooses to focus on. “If you look at it properly, it’s a gift. Not a penalty. Not a punishment. It’s an opportunity to reconsider your perspective on life,” says Kirk.

“It was a great experience. It might be strange to say, but its what I believe. It’s not something I want to go through again, but it was priceless. It changed my entire life and made me a lot more appreciative.” That is what is significant to Kirk. Not having cancer twice. Not having a life-threatening blood clot, but the living that he has done and the opportunity that these experiences have given him to help others. “I’ve been able to share my story and offer help to others that I couldn’t have offered without the experience. People knew I was speaking the truth. There’s no fiction in it. I try to give people a real and truthful perspective and that is invaluable.”

Kelly has a similar take away. She says the experience afforded her a new perspective, but also made her a strong advocate for patient empowerment. “Don’t always accept what they say. Be an advocate,” she says. “If you have a bad feeling and you are not getting answers, go elsewhere. There are so many places you can go for information. Take advantage of every opportunity. Having a good, strong advocate will save your life.”

In addition to his two bouts with cancer, Kirk has had a number of pretty considerable medical issues over the course of his 67 years, but he’s never let any of it slow him down. “Everyone has their own journey and also their own destination,” says Kirk who believes that a positive attitude is crucial to recovery. “You just can’t allow yourself to be destroyed by these situations.”

Patient Profile: Cali Trepkowski

In March 2015, 8 year old Cali Trepkowski vomited on the way to school. She stayed home from school that day, but she seemed to be fine as the day progressed. A few weeks later she vomited again. This happened three more times so her mom Carrie called the pediatrician who determined it was allergies and put Cali on an allergy medicine. But the vomiting continued. The pediatrician said Cali might be lactose intolerant and advised Carrie to take all dairy out of Cali’s diet. But still Cali vomited. In June the pediatrician said to remove all the sugar from Cali’s diet, but the vomiting continued. By July Cali was vomiting every three days. A visit to the emergency room resulted in a gastric diagnosis and a follow up with a gastroenterologist. The gastroenterologist scheduled Cali for an endoscopy on August 14th, but by August 1st she was sleeping all the time and still vomiting so they went to the ER again and Carrie, who was no longer willing to wait to get results, insisted the endoscopy be performed immediately. The endoscopy didn’t provide answers so the ER doctor scheduled a brain MRI for August 14, the original date for the endoscopy. The morning of the MRI Cali woke up and stumbled into a wall. “Her gait was off,” says Carrie who had become increasingly worried about her daughter. The scan revealed that Cali had a 4.5 by 5 centimeter tumor in the back of her brain right up against the brain stem. Cali had cancer — Medulloblastoma, the most common form of malignant brain tumor in children.

Cali was immediately transported to a hospital in Miami, Florida where her surgeon put a drain in her brain to reduce the swelling. It was the swelling that was causing Cali to vomit. On August 17th Cali’s surgeon was able to remove the entire tumor. It was very literally not a day too soon. The surgeon told Carrie that miracles do happen and if they had waited one more day they would very likely have lost Cali.

Four weeks after surgery Cali underwent proton radiation — which Carrie learned is a type of radiation that causes less tissue damage. She says that with traditional radiation all of Cali’s major organs would have been vulnerable but with proton radiation only the top of her kidneys were affected. Then Cali had nine rounds of chemotherapy over 11 months and more than 20 transfusions. In addition, she began speech, occupational, and physical therapies and therapy with the Special Equestrians that helped Cali recover her strength and helped with her balance.

“She truly is a miracle,” says Carrie of her daughter who has some lasting side effects such as slow processing speed, and abstract learning, attention, and balance issues, but overall has had a remarkable recovery. “In the cancer world we’re the lucky ones,” says Carrie who is all too aware of how easily it could have gone the other way for them. “Once it becomes part of your world you see it everywhere. You have to give hope to others going through it.” she says. “I am very adamant about sharing her story and helping others.” Carrie stresses how important it is for parents and patients to press for answers from their doctors. “I knew something wasn’t right,” she says. “I don’t care what a doctor tells you. demand the testing. Don’t wait. Just because they are doctors doesn’t mean they are all knowing.” In Cali’s case so many of her symptoms were overlooked because the doctors she was seeing were not familiar with her type of cancer and because it doesn’t show up in normal blood work. Carrie now knows that when a child throws up in the morning, if it’s not a flu or other virus, it’s a sign of a brain tumor and she wants other parents to know that too.

Cali is 10 now. She’ll be 11 in February. She has an MRI every three months and while she currently has no evidence of disease, the highest chance of relapse is two years post treatment. After five years with no relapse Cali will be “cured” and will have a brain scan once a year for the rest of her life.

Going forward, Carrie says Cali will see an endocrinologist to address the hormonal side effects that accompany treatment. Carrie, who is very proactive in her daughter’s care, suspects a growth issue. “She hasn’t had much growth in two years,” she says. “Children will stop growing when there’s a brain tumor.” Carrie is concerned that without supplemental growth hormone Cali won’t reach a height of five feet. “Your whole world becomes taking care of your child and finding the best treatment,” she says. “I just want her to feel normal.”

As for the rest of the family, things are starting to become what Carrie calls a new normal. Carrie is extremely dedicated to supporting other families in the cancer community, and raising money for cancer research and the Make a Wish Foundation. She and her husband are both teachers and have three other children who Carrie says “didn’t have a mom” while Cali was undergoing treatment and Carrie was focused on caring for her. “I’m finally starting to be able to enjoy things again and I have these other kids here who need their mom,” says Carrie.“We do things differently now. We are building memories. Making as many memories as we can. We do as much as we can and enjoy it. We enjoy life.”