Patient Stories

Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma Survivor

Roger Sweet

  • Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 64 in 1999
  • Treated with chemotherapy and cured with an autologous bone marrow transplant in a clinical study in 2001
  • In 2013, exercising regularly and living a healthy life at age 78

There aren’t many people like Roger Sweet. In 1999, at 64 years young, Roger could pull off 32 chin-ups—a feat that not many people of any age can claim. That year he was diagnosed with follicular large-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had a bone marrow transplant at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) two years later, and today he’s one of the fittest people you’ll ever meet.

A professional product and graphics designer and engineer during his career days, Roger worked at Mattel Toys, and part of his job was to invent the next toy craze. He designed fashion accessories for Barbie and originated and named the He-Man character. He’s also the man behind the general concept of the Masters of the Universe male action figure line.

“He-Man was so different from me physically that he was very appealing to me,” Roger said. As a 13 year-old boy, he was nearly 5 feet tall and weighed 88 pounds. “The girls bullied me!” he said. In the next year he gained 17 pounds and grew to 5 feet 10 inches. “Still very skinny,” he said, “scrawny.” It was then that Roger started doing pushups and other exercises, like weight lifting and pole vaulting, to develop his body. Exercise became a life-long practice that Roger continues to this day.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Roger found out that he had cancer in August 1999. He found a lump on his throat, and a biopsy revealed it was lymphoma.

“Everybody has some fear of cancer, and I got the news and thought it [the cancer] might kill me,” Roger said. “But I looked over my life, and if it was my time, then I had no regrets.”

But it wasn’t “Roger’s time.” In the remaining months of 1999 he received chemotherapy in a hospital not far from his home. His cancer went into remission, but eight months later it returned. Roger’s doctor told him the standard treatment wasn’t going to work for him, and he referred Roger to University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) and SCCA, where Roger began preparations for an autologous stem cell transplant under the care of medical oncologist Ajay K. Gopal, MD.

Alternatives for Older Patients

For many patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the standard treatments can do more harm than good—frustrating scientists in the clinical research division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, like Dr. Gopal, and leading them to search for a better way to treat this disease.

"Unfortunately, most people [with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma] will relapse after their primary therapy, and most therapies in the past for patients with relapsed lymphoma have been targeted to younger adults," said Dr. Gopal. But the disease most often occurs in older people, like Roger, who are in their 60s.

Doctors are reluctant to use standard bone marrow or stem cell transplantation in older adults because standard conditioning—with high-dose chemotherapy and total body irradiation (TBI)—is too toxic for many older people to withstand. “That basically excludes half of the patients that have this diagnosis [from getting a transplant]," Dr. Gopal said. So doctors have been developing options for older patients, including more targeted or reduced-intensity conditioning protocols. Roger was one of the earliest patients to benefit.

On April 6, 2001, he checked in to UWMC to begin his transplant conditioning as part of a clinical study using radioactively tagged monoclonal antibodies, rather than typical high-dose chemotherapy and TBI.

Working with radioactively tagged monoclonal antibodies, y-shaped proteins that can be created to bind to a specific substance—in this case, cancer—doctors can deliver very high doses of radiation to tumor sites, sparing the surrounding healthy tissues. High-dose chemotherapy and TBI damage healthy cells as well as tumor cells. Researchers believed the targeted approach would be safer and more effective for older people.

“I was the ninth person treated on [this] stem cell transplant protocol at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance,” Roger said. After conditioning, he was in isolation at the medical center until April 18, he received his stem cell transplant on April 23, and he was released on May 10.

“It took a while to recuperate,” Roger said. “But I managed to work out 45 minutes a day during my treatment recovery period at UW Medical Center.”

Healthy Living

Twelve years after his transplant, Roger continues to have excellent health.

“Cancer changed my life,” he said. “I work out more now because, for me, it could be a matter of life and death.”

Three days a week he jogs 28 minutes on a treadmill and then does three sets of complete wide-grip, forward-grip pull-ups from a dead hang. “Each set to failure,” he said, followed by stretching exercises.

On alternate days, three days a week, he does a 45-minute workout on a Trimax machine that uses hydraulic cylinders for resistance.

“Because of that feature, most exercises are two exercises in one because they involve both pulling and pushing, using opposing sets of muscles. I recommend this Trimax machine most highly because it provides an excellent, highly versatile, highly efficient workout,” Roger said. “My opinion is that the extremely strenuous cardiovascular exercise on the treadmill is most responsible for my continuing excellent health at 78 years old. That exercise does a great job of flushing out my system.”

Roger’s advice for a long life: “It’s extremely important to eat a healthy diet and not become overweight. Also, don’t use abusive substances, like smoking, drinking, and drugs that ruin the body and affect your mind. Exercise regularly, and concentrate on it. In addition, get bad situations out of your life. Further, as you get older, find things that you like doing a lot, and dig in and do them, especially if you’ve had a serious disease. Make all of that a top priority in your life. The reason is that you can have all of the material wealth in the world, but if you don’t have your health, nothing else counts.”