Michael Rose was diagnosed with stage IV Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL), an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, in 2008. “It’s the ultimate scare,” he said. After treatment with a B cell-smiting immunotherapy called Rituxan (Rituximab), in combination with chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, Michael is cancer-free. The 46-year-old financier says his experience with the disease led to “an awakening”: Not only did it inspire him to prioritize his relationship with his wife and family, it also inspired a thirst for adventure. We spoke to Michael about his battle with cancer, as well as his new, daredevil hobbies.
CRI: When did you learn that you had cancer?
Michael: I found out in February of 2008 that I had lymphoma. I started feeling not quite normal in November 2007. I knew something was pretty wrong because of the tiredness I was feeling and the fact that I was losing weight pretty rapidly. I went in to the doctor in December 2007, and they started running various tests to try to determine what this might be. There was a 30-to-45-day waiting period, and I told the doctor to just call me with the diagnosis, because my preference was just to know as soon as possible. I was actually sitting at work when I found out, which was a little odd. Of course, I called my wife immediately, and then my boss, who knew something was not right either. I was not looking well or feeling well at all.
CRI: Can you describe how you felt at that time?
Michael: I think it was somewhat of a relief to finally know what it is that we were dealing with. Obviously, not good news hearing you've got cancer, but also a bit of a relief to say, “Okay, now I know what it is, and we can try to get rid of it.” By this time, I was actually at stage IV, so it was spreading quite rapidly throughout my body. They got me in to see an oncologist really quickly: I found out I had cancer on a Tuesday and had the first treatment on Saturday.
CRI: What course of treatment was recommended?
Michael: Luckily for this particular type of cancer there was a pretty standard treatment called R-CHOP— Rituxan is the “R” and then the other letters stand for four other chemotherapy drugs. We talked about doing six rounds of R-CHOP chemotherapy and then, after three or four treatments, I would get a PET scan to see if it had slowed down or looked like it was heading towards remission.
"I was always thinking, I'm going to get through this and how great it'll be to take a new approach to life, where I’d appreciate every day a little bit more than I did before."
CRI: How were you feeling as you began the R-CHOP treatment?
Michael: They give you the treatments every three weeks with this type of lymphoma, and between the first and second treatment, it was pretty rough. I went through a typical response to intensive chemotherapy initially and felt tired, sick, a lot of other physical things. By the time I started getting into the second and third rounds, I think the treatment was starting to work on the cancer, and I actually started to feel quite a bit better. I actually returned to work after the fourth treatment. So I did start to progressively feel better and feel less of the side effects related to chemotherapy drugs and Rituxan.
CRI: When you were going through the early part of the treatment, what kinds of things helped you to maintain resolve and stay positive?
Michael: I enjoy hiking and running and a lot of outdoors stuff, so I was thinking about how great it was going to be to get back to a normal life of doing these kinds of things. I was always thinking, I'm going to get through this and how great it'll be to take a new approach to life, where I’d appreciate every day a little bit more than I did before. My wife and I had a lot of quality time together that we maybe hadn't had in a while, because we were busy with work. And I think, having that quality time together just to take walks together and talk was really good.
CRI: After this first round of treatment, you went into remission, correct?
Michael: Yes. I sure did, for about nine months.
CRI: Can you describe how you spent those nine months?
Michael: I had gotten the clean bill of health in July and so, what are you going to do before your next PET scan three months later? We went to Hawaii, which we had done before. It was the first place that I wanted to get back to, just to experience the beauty of it again. I was definitely enjoying life and approaching things quite differently than I was before. I had fallen into the typical thing a lot of people do where you take everything for granted, and I certainly was not doing that after getting through my initial bout of cancer. I think the big focus was on the importance of family—not only my wife, but my immediate family: brothers, sisters, mom, dad. I felt a much closer connection with all of them than I had in the past. I also got involved with the Lymphoma Research Foundation because I wanted to try to give back and help others, who were in similar circumstances. I'm still involved with the organization. I also did a little traveling in that time.
CRI: Did the cancer recur after the nine months were over?
Michael: Yes, it didn't feel like previous times because they caught it very early. A PET scan showed there was a small amount of lymphoma in some lymph nodes underneath my left armpit. Considering the quick recurrence, they suggested an autologous stem cell transplant. Prior to that, I had three rounds of something they called RICE—which is Rituxan and three chemotherapy drugs—to set me up for this stem cell transplant. So I went through three rounds of chemotherapy through about May, and then had this transplant in June of 2009.
CRI: What was the process of getting stem cell transplant like?
Michael: Prior to going in the hospital, they extracted stem cells out of my own blood and froze them until I was ready to get them back again. Even though you've had the set-up chemotherapy [RICE], they hit you with six straight days of the most intensive chemotherapy that you'll ever get in your life. They take your immune system down to practically zero and build it back. The purpose of the intensive chemotherapy is to hopefully wipe out every bit of remaining cancer. Then they give you your own stem cells back, which helps rebuild your immune system over a period of a few months. So I was in the hospital for three weeks with that, and then for the two months following, you're really not supposed to be exposed to any type of sickness or anything else. So I pretty much stayed in my house for about two months. We would take walks every morning, but the rest of the day was just sitting in the house. After the transplant, you actually feel pretty tired for a couple of months as your body rebuilds itself. It wasn't like I was ready to go out and run marathons or anything, but it was still quite boring.
CRI: What was next for you?
Michael: Probably three to four months after the stem cell transplant, I started to feel pretty good. I returned to work, and I've been feeling great ever since. I have started to do things that that I wasn't planning on doing before. I got into scuba diving, which is something I hadn’t tried before because I was a little nervous about it. Finally I was just like, “You know what? I've been through so much, so I'm going to try it.” We've been doing it ever since, and that's been awesome. For our 20-year anniversary trip, we went to Australia and did four days of diving on the Great Barrier Reef, which is just totally amazing. I've run three half-marathons since then and done some incredible hiking in the Grand Canyon. In fact, two weeks ago, we did the Rim to Rim, where you start at North Rim and you hike up to the South Rim. It's like 23.5 miles, and it's kind of a bucket list item. I’m just trying to make the most of the second chance I've been given, and hopefully it [the cancer] doesn't come back ever. There's always that chance it will, but I've been trying to make the most of life ever since.
CRI: Any advice to someone going through this?
Michael: Always be focused on where you're going to get to, and you'll get there. The end goal for me was getting back to a normal life, and then trying to check out some things that I hadn't done before. Some of the things that we've done over the last four years, I think, ‘Wow, I may have never even considered doing some of those had I not been through all of this.’