Bruce Turner accepts what fate handed him, but he ponders not on how life ought to be.
“A lot of people get cancer and everybody’s got to go sometime,” said the 65-year-old San Tan Valley resident, hardly unshaken by his impasse. “I absorbed it pretty slowly. But I wouldn’t say that I was in shock.”
As for many at his age diagnosed with multiple myeloma, it’s not the end-all. Chemotherapy and radiation work to kill cancer cells, but doing so kills the unaffected ones.
And Turner had assistance of a different form.
Multiple myeloma is a bone marrow cancer that attacks plasma cells and weakens bone structure. Administering bone marrow stem cell transplants in cases like Turner’s — in an effort to regain immunity — is nothing novel.
Though for the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, Turner’s case was the first autologous stem cell transplant conducted at the Gilbert facility.
An autologous transplantee is someone who receives stem cells from their own body. The retired Burlington Northern Santa Fe train master, who received his transplant in May, is hardly the Valley’s first transplant recipient. But he is now part of a fledgling bioscience sector in the East Valley region.
‘Little pains here and there’
In September 2012, Turner said he headed to the emergency room for an unexplained injury. As it would turn out, he broke his pelvis after crossing his legs.
He also experienced “little pains here and there.” Doctors’ explanations for the pain were because of old age, and he learned to ignore it. But after undergoing X-rays and CAT scans following the more serious injury, the ER doctor suggested his broken pelvis and pain could be due to cancer.
His wife, a perfect counterbalance to his deliberateness, hit the ground running. They settled on MD Anderson after his wife scheduled a time for an evaluation.
Head-to-toe X-rays revealed pockmarks on his bones. His skull was dotted with erosions caused by multiple myeloma.
According to the American Cancer Society, there is a 1 in 149 chance of someone being diagnosed with multiple myeloma and more than 10,000 deaths nationally are predicted in 2013.
But Turner’s own prognosis isn’t so bleak — thanks to treatment like stem cell therapy.
“Bruce has a pretty good chance of having a long time of life without the disease being progressed,” said Dr. Görgün Akpek, stem cell transplant program director at MD Anderson.
Stem cell therapy — or stem cell transplantation — is a field that needs to progress faster, Akpek said, explaining that his mission is to educate patients, staff, physicians and the community about the benefits of this form of treatment.
Akpek said bone marrow transplants would continue and expand with donor stem cell transplants. And since the center’s first adult stem cell transplant, two multiple myeloma patients received transplants while two more await treatment.
In the East Valley — Gilbert in particular — Banner MD Anderson’s effort is seen as an “anchor in that overall science and technology strategy for us,” said Dan Henderson, director of economic development for the Town of Gilbert.
“We have a particular focus on stem industry,” he said.
Mercy Gilbert Medical Center and Ironwood Cancer and Research Centers – which has East Valley locations in Gilbert, Mesa, Chandler and Queen Creek – are among other area facilities that have conducted stem cell research in some form.
Life in remission
For Turner, walking his dogs was an enjoyable start to the day. But his diagnosis and his 15-day near-isolation wouldn’t allow it. Since his release in May, he’s been out strolling with Tibby and Cotton.
“I was only allowed out of the room even if I was wearing a mask and gloves,” he said. “And for exercise, I pulled my IV pole around with me as I walked around the unit in the hospital.”
The doctor said Turner’s stem cell transplant is not a cure but a prolonger. About two out of three autologous transplant patients would have a reoccurrence of cancer, Akpek said, citing the Center for International Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant Registry.
It depends on how early the cancer is noticed, the response to treatment and recovery in determining life expectancy and the quality of life after remission.
Turner added caregivers have a tougher duty and deeper strain than someone suffering from cancer.
“And I can’t say enough about my wife and how she’s stepped up to the plate there. You know, when you get married and they talk about for better or for worse and sickness and in health … I tell you what, if people knew what this can be might have second thoughts.”
Turner began chemotherapy long before he actually underwent the transplant itself. Akpek noted the risk of dying after chemo or the stem cell treatment, but added that it is minimal.
“You know you’re not alone and you don’t have to look very far to see guys coming back from Afghanistan,” Turner said. “They’re in much worse shape than I am.”
The future of stem cell treatment
Akpek estimated the United States has around 100 stem cell therapy facilities.
“In order to be a fully accredited stem cell transplant program or center, you have to be able to do both types of transplants,” Akpek said. “We are actually aiming to get full accreditation by the end of this year or early 2014.”
Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center had a blood marrow transplant program that lasted more than 10 years, said September Mitchell, a former stem cell coordinator at the Phoenix hospital. Mitchell is now in a similar role at MD Anderson. Mitchell, Turner’s stem cell coordinator at MD Anderson, implied the Gilbert facility has taken the stem cell torch from Good Samaritan.
The stem cell transplant program will eventually provide treatment for other forms of cancer, said Todd Werner, CEO of MD Anderson.
A “Phase II” expansion is underway at MD Anderson, said Werner, who is also a board member with the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce. And to meet the increasing demand of patients, the center will develop “Phase III” later with added medical technology, beds and an alternative treatment wing, he added.
Gilbert mayor John Lewis said he believes the technology and use of stem cells — “the non-controversial stem cell research,” he noted — is an effective means of fighting cancer and assures it will continue.
Corey, a junior studying journalism at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.