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Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Survivor

Michael Corn

  • Healthy and active, began to experience fatigue, persistent coughing, and quick weight loss
  • Diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 67 in 2012
  • In remission after being treated with R-CHOP chemotherapy

“When you hit 60, you begin to feel like everything in your body is wearing out,” according to Michael Corn, associate director in the University of Washington (UW) Office of Sponsored Programs. Michael has spent the last 13 years working with a wide range of researchers at UW. His job includes handling UW research agreements and awards, including those for clinical studies at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA).

“I never went in for regular physicals,” Michael said. “My wife, Cathy, and I are bicyclists. We ride a tandem.” They considered themselves to be healthy people. They ate right, were physically active, and in February 2012 started lifting weights because they knew strength training would be good for them as they got older.

“We did weight training and cycling all spring and summer,” Michael said. He was 67 years old at the time. By the end of the summer, I thought I should have been stronger, but I was feeling the opposite. I was fatigued, my emotions were off, I got a persistent cough, and then I started losing weight really fast.”

So he went to see his family doctor for a physical and had a number of blood tests. The doctor thought Michael might have bronchitis or sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease, in his lungs. “My red blood count was down, and the other numbers were all off a little but nothing drastic. The doctor also thought I was anemic,” Michael said.

Because of the persistent cough, Michael had a chest X-ray, which came out negative. However, a chest computed tomography (CT) scan showed some unusual looking lymph nodes at the bottom edge of the scan. Next he had an abdominal CT scan that showed enlarged lymph nodes suggestive of lymphoma. By this time, Michael was losing nearly half a pound of weight every day. “I was getting really sick,” he said. “I had high fevers, chills, night sweats, and I had a lot of trouble eating. I wondered if I had lymphoma or some other type of cancer.”

Diagnosis: Diffuse Large B-Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

After receiving the CT scan results on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Michael was referred to an oncologist by his family doctor. “I was feeling so sick that I thought I should go to the hospital, but I still didn’t have a diagnosis, and my doctor said he did not have a basis for hospitalizing me,” Michael said. “That evening, I emailed a colleague who worked in the clinical trial group at SCCA, who quickly put me in touch with Dr. Ajay Gopal,” associate professor in the Division of Medical Oncology at the UW School of Medicine and director of Clinical Research, Hematology Malignancies/Hematology at SCCA. “Through close communication with other UW physicians and SCCA, I was quickly scheduled for an abdominal biopsy and an endoscopy the following Monday at UW Medical Center.” 

On November 30, 2012, a few days after the biopsy, Michael and Cathy, then his longtime companion, got married “in a hurry for practical purposes,” Michael said, “like insurance and inheritance. I also updated my will.”

It took a little more time to get a firm diagnosis, but in the interim, Michael received supportive care, such as blood transfusions, and a lot of reassurances. His doctors had to find out if Michael’s bone marrow had been affected, and they ran specialized tests to confirm the specific tumor type. Within a couple of weeks they were able to determine he had diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. By mid-December, Dr. Gopal started Michael on R-CHOP, a combination of drugs—including rituximab (Rituxan), cyclophosphamide (Clafen, Cytoxan, Neosar), doxorubicin hydrochloride (Adriamycin), vincristine sulfate (Vincasar), and prednisone—that is the standard first-line chemotherapy treatment for Michael’s disease. Michael completed six cycles of R-CHOP given every three weeks. “They said I’d feel better after the first chemotherapy treatment,” Michael said, “and I did.”

Keep It Moving

All through treatment, Michael tried to keep exercising as much as he could, riding up to six days a week on the indoor tandem trainer as well as continuing to lift weights. “I’d been told that eating and keeping physically active could make the difference between making it or not,” Michael said.

Before Christmas, as Michael received a blood transfusion, the SCCA infusion staff recognized signs that Michael might have a blood infection, a result of his impaired immune system. He was rushed to UW Medical Center, where he spent the next three days receiving intravenous (IV) antibiotics. After Michael was released, he and Cathy were able to administer IV antibiotics at home through the same port used to deliver his chemotherapy.

“Chemotherapy was easier on me than the disease had been,” Michael said. “I threw up only once after the first cycle, and eventually I stopped using anti-nausea medications.”

Michael had lost a lot of weight, getting down to 163 pounds. For a man who is over 6 feet tall, this weight was on the low side, and the rapid loss was a cause for concern. By the second cycle of chemotherapy, Michael’s eating and mood improved greatly, and he worked on gaining weight. “It was hard physically and emotionally,” Michael said. “Of course I was upset because I had a life-threatening condition, but the disease seemed to work directly against my emotions, and I just had to accept it. Having a spouse and health care providers to reassure me made a huge difference in my outlook and attitude.”

Relief with Remission

By the fourth cycle of chemotherapy, a positron emission tomography (PET) with CT scan showed that his cancer was no longer detectable.

“So I’m now in remission and have a ticket in the cancer lottery,” Michael said. “How long will remission last? That is unknown at this point.”

Michael’s father had colon cancer and died of lung cancer. His mother and his aunts died of breast or uterine cancers. There are no blood cancers in his family.

“We somehow just dealt with it,” Michael said, referring to his initial diagnosis. “Life is full of random events. I am not a religious person, but I gain some measure of reassurance from being part of an organization that values science and is constantly striving to add knowledge for the betterment of all of us. When the anesthesiologist for my biopsy said to think of something nice, like a walk on the beach, while she was putting me under, I said I will think of science and the skill of my surgeon.”

SCCA is “oriented around supporting you,” Michael said. “Whether it is blood draws, bone marrow tests, ports, radiology, or nurses, all of it equates to comprehensive care and treatment.” Michael said it is hard to express the degree of gratitude he has for his wife, SCCA, and UW Medicine. “I probably owe at least an extra one-and-a-half lifetimes to the university,” he said. “I got a new ankle a few years ago at Harborview, and now again with lymphoma I have received the best care I could have. So for someone who believes that random events can shape our lives, I have been pretty lucky to be working at the UW. When I realized there was a good chance I could have some kind of blood cancer, I knew there really would be no better place in the world to receive treatment. So even though I was feeling terrible and fairly lonely on that Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, I had no doubt in my mind where I wanted to go for help.”

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