Cancer: Dr. Rob Stuart's Inspiring Story of Survival

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Guest: Dr. Robert K. Stuart, Hematology/Oncology

Host: Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatrist

Dr. Linda Austin: I am Dr. Linda Austin. I am talking with Dr. Rob Stuart, who is Professor of Medicine, Hematologist/Oncologist at the Hollings Cancer Center here in Charleston, South Carolina, but Dr. Stuart, right now, I want to talk about a more personal side which is your own experience yourself and in your family with cancer. Can you share that with us?

Dr. Robert K. Stuart: Yes, of course, I am a cancer specialist and finished my training in about 1978. I joined the faculty originally with Johns Hopkins University at their cancer center and moved to MUSC in 1985 and of course like any physician, my own health and susceptibility was never really high on my mind but in 1991, I had a what I thought was a stomach ache but my internist thought it might be appendicitis and he recommended an x-ray of the abdomen. Well, that turned out be a red herring, but the x- ray actually showed an abnormality on my right kidney and that lead to further tests that showed a fairly large tumor at the bottom of my right kidney and finally, I underwent surgery here at MUSC. I was really one of the first patients to have what’s called a partial nephrectomy or removal of only half the kidney rather than the whole kidney which was the standard practice at that time in 1991. It turned out that this was a malignant tumor of the kidney and it was successfully removed, and I have now been survivor for about 16 years. When I first returned to work, some of my patients would say to me, Oh! Dr. Stuart, we heard about your diagnosis and by the way, are you going to have chemotherapy? Because the course of that time that’s mainly what I do is give people chemotherapy, and I told them, ?Well, the good news is I am not going to have chemotherapy. The bad news is there is no chemotherapy for this type of cancer, and so I have to hope that the surgeon got it all.? Well, I look back now 16 years later and now there is treatment for that type of cancers. So, that’s really an indication of success in treatment, but I have been fortunate to be disease free from 16 years now.

Dr. Linda Austin: It’s a great story, and I think it’s so important to share survivor stories. Six years ago when your wife, Charlene Stuart, whom I know from working here at MUSC. She was CEO, I believe with MUSC, developed cancer as well. What happened there?

Dr. Robert K. Stuart: Well, that’s an even more compelling story. At that time, we were at Saudi Arabia, we had decided to do some overseas experience and I was Chairman of the Oncology Department at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Charlene was a senior administrator at the hospital and she developed acute myeloid leukemia and again, it was very subtle. She developed a pain in her aside that turned out to be a pneumonia, and we were in the emergency room looking at the x-ray when the emergency room physician came up to me. He knew I was the Chairman of Hematology and Oncology and said, ?I don’t know what this means. I think you better look at it and of course, it was a blood test result.? It was very abnormal and two days later, we did a bone marrow test and Charlene had acute myeloid leukemia, which is a disease that I have been struggling against my whole career. So, her initial treatment had to be carried out immediately and re-add and it was quite successful. She went into remission. She had some more treatment and then had a type of bone marrow transplant that I helped to develop when I was at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where we use the patient’s own stem cells to try to kill the disease marrow and then re-seeded with good stem cells, but ironically only 90 days later, she had relapsed and knowing -- of course, I know a lot about the disease and I knew that her survival from that point was about what it would take to plan a good funeral, but we did have a backup plan. We knew at that point, one of Charlene’s brothers back in South Carolina was a so-called perfect match and could serve as a bone marrow donor. So, we flew back to Charleston and Charlene had a second bone marrow transplant at MUSC, this time using stem cells from her normal brother and that transplant was apparently successful, and she has been free of disease for over six years now.

Dr. Linda Austin: Another wonderful story, and you recently, I understand, participated in the Lance Armstrong Bike Ride Cross-Country, but I don’t know the official title of that.

Dr. Robert K. Stuart: Yeah, I?ll be glad to talk about that. It’s called a Tour of Hope and it was a program sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb and also by all of the sponsors of Lance Armstrong like Nike and Trek Bicycles and so forth and so on. So, the idea was they selected a team of 20 individuals who had a connection with cancer and of course, my credentials were that I was a cancer specialist; I had participated in cancer clinical trial; I had had cancer; my wife had had cancer, so I had a pretty strong portfolio. The only trouble for me was the bicycling part. So, we divided the 20 riders into four teams of five. We left Los Angeles at midnight in October 2004, and we had eight days to make it to Washington, DC. So, each team rode stages in rotation and each team had 11 stages and we rode from Los Angeles to Washington, DC in eight days by way of Madison, Wisconsin, which is not the most direct route I should add. It was physically very challenging, mentally very challenging because some of my stages were during the day in bright bragging sunshine in Colorado. Another stages, were in the dead of night in the Iowa with the wind blowing and the wind chill at about 30 degrees. So, it was very tough and along the way, we had planned rallies -- each of the teams had planned rallies, where we talked about cancer clinical trials and I was able to point out that my wife had been treated in two clinical trials, and I really think it saved her life. So, anyway, we made it to Washington, DC and had a big rally on the mall behind the White House and it was quite an event.

Dr. Linda Austin: Somebody listening to your very remarkable story is someone who may have just gotten cancer diagnosis themselves perhaps the person they loved most in the world may be a mother, a spouse, a child. Speak to that person, what you want them to know?I think what I would advice is first of all to get us much information as you can. The idea of educating yourself about cancer and cancer treatments including, especially clinical trials is a very important step. The patient is not always in the best position to do that. So, family, friends, caregivers, people who love the affected individuals are in good position to do that and probably the web is a good place to start, can certainly start with the Lance Armstrong Foundation has a site called  HYPERLINK "" and educate yourself. When the physician finally gets down to making a recommendation, a good question to ask is, is there are clinical trial that I might be eligible for. Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion. If it offends your doctor, you got the wrong doctor and avail yourself of the expertise that’s available in places like the Hollings Cancer Center.

Dr. Linda Austin: You have mentioned several times, you have been an oncologist for 30 years and what an incredible ride that must have been. We have comes so far in 30 years.

Dr. Robert K. Stuart: It is quite dramatic. Thirty years ago, every patient that I saw was with acute leukemia, died and it was very frustrating to me. Now, we have measurable survivor, particularly in people under 60 years of age. The survival is now approaching 40% with the most dangerous forms of acute leukemia.

Dr. Linda Austin: And is that five-year survival?

Dr. Robert K. Stuart: That’s five-year but five-year survival in that diseases is tend to not to cure. When I started in Oncology, we were only treating patients that really at the end stage of their disease, and I used to get discouraged that it seemed like every patient that I was treating died of the disease I was treating. Well, that’s no longer the case believe me. We have ten million survivors in United States alone, living today. This is cancer survivors and that’s a remarkable accomplishment. So, yeah, it has been dramatic turn around in fulfilling career for me.

Dr. Linda Austin: What a thrilling story. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Dr. Robert K. Stuart: You’re welcome.

Speaker: If you have any questions about the services or programs offered at the Medical University of South Carolina or if you would like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please call MUSC Health Connection at (1-843) 792-1414.

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