Harland Grower retired from the United States Postal Service after 42 years in January 2010 at age 65. He’d been a letter carrier in New York before moving north to Alaska where he continued his career for the next 38 years.
In May 2007 Harland saw his doctor for his annual checkup. He’d been tired and felt like he was dragging. “I walked five or six miles a day for my job,” Harland says, and some days, he could hardly drag himself to complete his route.
“I’d always been fairly hefty,” Harland says, weighing 180 pounds when he was 15 years old. “I was 240 pounds in 2007 and I began to loose weight without even trying.”
After learning that his red blood cell count was low, a CT scan revealed that Harland had a tumor in his kidney that was eating his red blood cells, causing him to be anemic and lethargic. A PET scan revealed spots on his spine and lung as well.
First Step – Surgery
Harland saw a surgeon he’d seen before in Wasilla. The surgeon told him that his tumor was large and complicated. It had a finger creeping up towards Harland’s heart in the inferior vena cava, the large vein that carries deoxygenated blood from the lower half of the body to the heart’s right atrium. He referred Harland to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and University of Washington Medical Center’s chief of urologic oncology, Dr. Dan Lin.
“I was scheduled for surgery on July 13, 2007,” Harland recalls. “Dr. Lin was worried about my health during surgery and lined up a cardiologist and others to be there, just in case.” Harland was pleased to be released in just five days after surgery.
Clinical Research Study
Because his cancer had metastasized to his spine and lungs, Harland was told he might only have two years to live. Dr. Lin referred him to Dr. John Thompson, a UW professor of medical oncology, well known for his ground-breaking work in diagnosing and treating kidney cancer and melanoma.
“Dr. Thompson put me on sunitinib to shrink the cancer in my lung and spine. It worked for 10 months,” Harland says. A couple of months later, Dr. Thompson asked Harland to enroll in a clinical study. “He said it was my best shot.”
“Mr. Grower met with me and he decided to participate in a clinical trial involving the drug IMC-1121B (generic name ramucirumab),” Dr. Thompson says. “This is a monoclonal antibody to vascular endothelial growth factor receptor-1 (VEGFR-1).” The idea behind this treatment is that the antibody interferes with the binding of VEGF (a blood vessel stimulating factor) to its receptor, thereby blocking angiogenesis – the cancer’s blood supply.
“We know that kidney cancers often over-secrete VEGF, leading to an intense proliferation of blood vessels into kidney cancer metastatic sites,” Dr. Thompson says. “By blocking the interaction of VEGF with its receptor, ramucirumab may limit vascularity and limit tumor growth.”
Harland has tolerated the treatments very well, with minimal side effects. His cancer, that had been growing after conventional therapy, has remained in check since fall of 2008.
In addition to radiation therapy to the cancer site, he also receives periodic injections of zometa, which he gets in his hometown in Alaska. “Zometa is thought to block the ability of cancer cells in the bone marrow to attack and destroy the hard, outer part of bone called the cortex (the part that gives bone its structural integrity),” Dr. Thompson says. “Harland has also tolerated this drug very well with no significant side effects. There has been no additional evidence of new bone metastasis since he has been on zometa.”
“The trial medications aren’t a cure,” Harland says. “But the longer I can stay alive on these drugs the better. When you’re given a time limit, every day is precious.”
In 2010, Harland has exceeded those two-year predictions. He looks forward to every day as a gift.
“Dr. Thompson says I’m his poster boy,” Harland says, who comes to SCCA from Wasilla every two weeks for treatments, which will go on indefinitely as far as he knows. He’s grateful everyday for the skilled physicians who have saved his life.
“Dr. Thompson isn’t your average doctor. He makes time to talk to me and always looks at me like I’m a person and not a number.”
Harland tries to keep a positive outlook. He says he’s feeling good – like a regular 66 year-old man, even though he doesn’t walk as much as he used to.