One Tuesday in November of 1985, a doctor told Valerie Hesterberg that her husband, Alex, would be dead by Friday. Then 39, Mr. Hesterberg had been diagnosed with an advanced case of lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Not only was his prognosis wrong — since the Garden City resident is still alive 27 years later — but no one could have predicted all of the treatment advances that would allow him and other lymphoma patients at the North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute to watch their children and even their grandchildren grow up.
Now 66, Mr. Hesterberg has survived his original diagnosis and four recurrences with the help of multiple rounds of chemotherapy and other targeted drugs. Throughout his journey, Steven Allen, MD, associate chief of hematology, has shepherded the Hesterbergs through the maze of treatments, introducing new therapies as they became available and echoing the couple’s positive attitude.
“Dr. Allen was the only doctor who thought Alex had a chance,” said Ms. Hesterberg, 65. “This man is not only a medical genius, but also this program is just completely state-of-the-art. And Dr. Allen has so much compassion for his patients — no matter how much time you need, he makes the time.”
Changing the face of treatment
About 800 new lymphoma patients are diagnosed each year at the North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute. The two most common types of the condition, Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, are divided into dozens of subtypes depending on cell variety. Each is treated — along with rarer lymphomas — according to the protocol deemed most effective for each patient’s type.
“A major advance has been the recognition of different biological categories of different lymphomas, some of which are important for making decisions about treatment,” said Jonathan Kolitz, MD, associate chief of hematologic oncology at the Monter Cancer Center and director of hematology/oncology for the Cancer Institute, explaining that genetic and molecular classifications make diagnoses more precise than ever. “We have many more agents to treat patients these days, and in a more effective fashion.”
Stem cell transplants via the Don Monti Bone Marrow Transplant Program are an integral tool in the arsenal of treatments, offering some lymphoma patients the potential for a cure. Also key is North Shore-LIJ’s participation in numerous clinical research trials, bringing patients the newest promising treatments as they’re uncovered.
A contract fulfilled – and renewed
Mr. Hesterberg decided to make a “contract with God” when he was first diagnosed, hoping to live 15 more years to see his two young sons get through college. But with diligent care and personal strength, he managed to renew the contract, and he’s doing well nearly three decades later. He looks forward to welcoming his fourth and fifth grandchildren this winter with his wife of 41 years.
“You can’t dissolve in your own self-pity,” said Ms. Hesterberg. “One of the things that has kept Alex alive is his great will and fortitude. I have it as well. We will continue to fight as we move forward on this ‘crooked road.’”
“He’s a remarkable gentleman and has tremendous will, optimism and faith that helps carry him along,” added Dr. Allen. “He also has wonderful support from his family.”