The Good Life

Cancer care knowledge, treatments continue to improve

Sitting in his oncologist's office in San Diego, Bill McCarthy was more than 3,000 miles from his hometown in Maine when he received the news: He had head and neck cancer. It’s that moment that we all dread—for ourselves and for our loved ones—but Bill’s first instinct wasn’t to fret or even to start checking off to-dos on his bucket list.

He had just one thing in mind: “If I’m going to die from cancer,” he told his oncologist, “I want to go fishing in Maine first.”

In 2007, Bill decided to move back to Maine after undergoing surgery for the cancer. He contacted Eastern Maine Medical Center to transfer his records, and while reeling in his share of trout, Bill began chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Bill was eventually admitted to the hospital, unable to eat or swallow, but his treatments were ultimately successful, and he was soon on the long path to recovery.

While battling cancer is never easy, success stories like Bill’s have become increasingly common with advancements in care and increased access to quality treatment options. In the 1930s, fewer than 20 percent of patients were living five years after beginning treatment. But that is no longer the case, as cancer survival rates have been steadily on the rise since 1975.

Small steps
The groundwork for the care available in our local area was laid decades ago, when, in 1937, Eastern Maine Medical Center first began using cancer treatment practices established by the American College of Surgeons. Eastern Maine Medical Center’s small clinic grew over the years into what is now EMMC Cancer Care at the Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer.

“Forty years ago, oncology was a new medical specialty,” explains Thomas Openshaw, MD, medical director, Eastern Maine Medical Center Oncology Research. “The advances in medical treatment for cancer and the improvement in radiation technology have meant that many more patients are now cured with fewer long-term side effects.”

In the last 20 years, patients have benefited from improvements that have shortened the amount of time they spend in the hospital, and provide new hope for recovery. “Where patients used to spend three days in the hospital to receive chemotherapy, they are now able to receive treatment at home,” says Karen Bushey, RN, a charge nurse in Grant 6 Oncology. “Many surgical procedures are much less invasive, which results in shorter hospital stays compared to just a few years ago.” The progress toward new treatment options, including personalized, targeted therapies that leverage the body’s immune system to fight cancer, continues to evolve.

Living with cancer
Thanks to all of these advancements in treatment, Bill was able to recover and begin planning for the next phase of his life. Though he still had a feeding tube after treatment, he asked radiation oncologist John Swalec, MD, if he could start training as a competitive runner. “My doctor did not recommend it, but he knew I was going to try it anyway, so he told me to be really, really careful.”

At a time when most people begin slowing down, Bill wanted to speed up. Bill ran his first marathon in 2010 with his friend Jeff, who had paired up to help him train. At the 20-mile mark, Jeff said he couldn’t continue. But Bill was not going to finish without his friend. They alternated between walking and running for the last six miles.

Even with a slow-paced finish, Bill came in at the top of his age class and qualified for the Boston Marathon. These days, Bill focuses on his health and exercise. Of course, he still finds time to cast some fishing lines every now and then, but he finds the most solace in running.

Now, 72, Bill hopes to run the Bar Harbor Marathon this fall.

This article was orginally printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Eastern Maine Medical Center's The Eagle Magazine.