This is an “open letter” expressing my deep gratitude to Jon Huntsman, Sr., the Utah billionaire, who founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, and has contributed almost a billion dollars to the Institute.
He and the top-notch staff he assembled have enabled me to manage the rare and always fatal form of neuroendocrine cancer I was diagnosed with in November of 2005. It was already Stage IV. There was a large tumor mass over the stomach wrapped in and around the artery and blood vessels going to my intestines. There were numerous tumors on my liver and most were already large. The cancer had also attacked my heart’s tricuspid valve which in turn was deteriorating. I’d lost 80 pounds almost ovrnight.
When doctors cannot find the generating tumor in 80% of the cases that patient is dead within six months. Mine was a case where the generator could not be detected. Thus, I was given the proverbial six months and told to put my affairs in order, which I did.
My wife and I did what most couples do after receiving such news: we cried, we prayed, we talked about bucket lists, and we did our homework. We ferreted out who the best doctor was for treating this rare form of cancer. We also found which cancer treatment hospital was the best in the world for treating it. Supposedly it was M.D. Anderson in Houston, Texas.
The best doctor was affiliated with Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. This was serendipitous because it gave us an excuse to drop in on an old friend of mine, Jay Shelledy. He was teaching and advising in the Journalism School at LSU.
While visiting with Shelledy we also heard back from M.D. Anderson. We’d sent my complete file to them—the MRI’s, the CT’s, the blood work, x-rays, colonoscopies—the works. The doctors at M.D. Anderson examined it all and sent word back that they were not going to see me, there was nothing they could do.
I was stunned. I’d never heard of one being refused an appointment to obtain a second opinion. The Lord works in mysterious ways, however, because it gave Shelledy the opportunity to pitch the relatively brand new Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City adjacent to the University of Utah Hospital.
As editor of the Salt Lake Tribune for ten years, Shelledy had become good friends with the Huntsman family, particularly Jon Senior and Jon Junior as well as David. He placed a couple of calls and the arrangements were taken care of. With my team of doctors at Cancer Care Northwest in Spokane we had worked out an attack strategy which the team at Huntsman concurred with, which was to attack the lesions on my liver first as they were the most immediate life-threatening.
The day came for my first visit. Once again I was stunned. Perhaps if I had known that Jon Senior was a cancer survivor, that he knows only one way to do things, and that is first class with meticulous attention to details as well as creating a soothing and reassuring ambience, I would not have been so surprised.
David Huntsman himself greeted me at the entrance. The facility itself looked like a five star hotel, and with its modern design and a spectacular view of the Wasatch Mountains as well as a view to the west of the Salt Lake Valley, the lake and the mountains beyond, it looked like something out of a futuristic Star Trek movie.
Almost immediately I was in a meeting with the Institute’s director, Dr. Stephen Prescott, and my interventional radiologist, Dr. James Carlisle, who over the course of the next year would handle five chemoembolism procedures. My room was larger than a hotel suite, with plenty of comfortable chairs, lamps, tv’s, lovely original paintings, all color coordinated.
One long hallway leading to my section had a fantastic display of Navaho rugs and other artifacts collected over the years by Karen Huntsman. The staff nurse’s and other medical personnel were all wonderful—patient, kind, thoughtful. Dr. Carlisle’s lead nurse, Lei Allison, was simply outstanding.
I felt like visiting royalty, and that because of Shelledy’s connections, I was receiving special treatment. I soon found out I wasn’t, that every patient is treated the same way. From his own experience Jon Huntsman knows how important a peaceful, serene atmosphere is, and one that conveys a subliminal message that with the team they have and the research they do, while you may not be cured the cancer can be stymied and in many instances, managed for a good number of years.
What really counts is the result. A fifth and final procedure I had at Huntsman was a then experimental procedure that is now almost standard that involved placing Ytrium-90 radioactive pellets flown in from Australia on the day of the procedure and placed on the remnants of the shattered tumors on my liver.
That seemed to do the trick because the generating tumor’s “production rate” dropped considerably and that coupled with the monthly shot of a sandostatin called octreotide that I take has enabled me to manage a fairly normal life far beyond the six months I was once given.
In that time I’ve been able to see two grandchildren born and grow, write three books and do a fair amount of fly fishing.
The Huntsman Cancer Institute along with the Mayo Clinic are the two facilities I always recommend to anyone facing cancer. Thank you, Jon Huntsman, for your vision. The Good Lord granted a miracle but you and your skilled doctors were the instrument. You know you have helped save thousands of lives. When your time comes I have no doubt you will hear the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy your heavenly Father has prepared for you.”Share on Facebook