New cancer treatment gives Newry farmer hope for a longer life
"I'm spreading manure, and I pulled a calf out the other day."
Both typical parts of a farmer's routine, but for Leslie Robertson of Newry, being able to do such chores is a blessing.
Robertson, 53, has suffered from a brain tumor for the past 18 months. That's about eight months longer than doctors initially thought he would live.
Robertson has operated his family's third-generation farm in the Bear River Valley his entire adult life. He has about 30 head of beef cattle, which graze in the fields of the 500-acre farm.
In late 2008, he began to have headaches, then had an episode in which he was unsteady on his feet. In December, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 glioblastoma. Doctors at Central Maine Medical Center immediately performed surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, then recommended radiation and chemotherapy.
Robertson had six weeks of such treatments in 2009.
But based on low five-year survival rates for that type of cancer, he and his significant other, Linda Smith, knew the tumor was likely to return.
So about a year ago Smith went straight to the Internet to look for other options, if needed. "There are no clinical trials in Maine," she said. "I e-mailed about 30 sites throughout the country."
At around 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, the phone rang. Robertson answered it, and said it was a doctor calling.
Smith was skeptical. "Doctors aren't calling on a Saturday afternoon," she said.
This one was. It was neurological surgeon Dr. Andrew Sloan, the director of the Brain Tumor and Neuro-Oncology Center at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
"It was unbelievable," said Robertson.
Sloan said there was a possibility Robertson might get a spot in a new clinical trial that utilizes a vaccine made from the cancer patient's own tumor cells. It is intended to trigger the body's immune system to attack cancer cells, and hold the tumor at bay for a year or two, perhaps more.
Other vaccine therapies are aimed at newly-diagnosed patients. This one is unique because it is designed for patients who have a recurrence, Smith said.
Robertson and Smith met Sloan in April of 2009, and the doctor monitored Robertson's condition over the next few months.
The tumor returned as expected, and in February Robertson underwent a second surgery in Cleveland. A portion of the removed tumor was used to make the vaccine, and in early March, Robertson started the injections. He was only the second patient at the Cleveland center to try the therapy.
The treatment required weekly trips to Cleveland. Although there are organizations that provide special flights for such patients, Robertson and Smith elected to drive - a 13-hour trip each way, with Smith at the wheel.
Robertson, who has traveled little in his life, said he had doubts at first about spending time in Cleveland.
But, he said, "I was surprised at how hospitable everyone was."
Each week he received two shots in quick succession. "There are no side effects, but they watch you close." Much easier to take than chemo and radiation, he said.
Two weeks ago, the injection schedule changed to every other week. And next week, Robertson is slated for a CAT scan to compare with one taken immediately after the February surgery.
He's scheduled for two more injections, followed by an eight-to-12-week span until a check up.
Smith said in recent months Robertson's caregivers "have been amazed at how well he's doing."
"I feel surprisingly well, considering I've had a couple of people messing around in my brain," said Robertson. "I'm starting to do my chores more, and I'm running tractors."
Robertson and Smith have two messages, one for people they know, and one for those they may not.
They're very grateful for the support they've received locally, particularly from a fundraiser held a year ago at the Funky Red Barn, which was organized by Robertson's daughter, Amy. "We're still using that money to travel," Smith said.
The other message is for people who receive a pessimistic medical diagnosis.
"We want people to know there are other options for treatment," said Smith.
"Don't just be satisfied with taking pills," said Robertson.