Cliff Hirsch summoned all his inner-strength to battle an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now, after intensive chemotherapy and two bone marrow transplants, he’s engaged in an unexpected new fight, this time as a cancer survivor.
While grateful his own cancer is in remission, the 55-year-old has learned that survivorship can be a journey with debilitating side effects of its own. Grappling with those issues has inspired the Weston, Mass., resident to take broader action to reshape how post-cancer life can be for others.
The program will aim to reduce the suffering of BMT survivors through focused clinical care and research.
He recently led a fundraising drive that raised more than $138,000 to help launch the Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) Survivorship Program. The program will aim to reduce the suffering of BMT survivors through focused clinical care and research.
Bone Marrow Transplant Initiative
Advances in cancer treatment over the past two decades have increased the need for such a program. “Significantly fewer patients are dying in the first six months of treatment because of complications,” says Yi-Bin Chen, MD, director of clinical research for Mass General’s BMT Program and Cliff’s personal physician. “But we realize these treatments are not tax free,” Dr. Chen adds. “People who live are sometimes left with health problems from cancer-related therapies.”
The new Mass General survivorship program will conduct research while seeking to advance clinical care that treats survivors’ pain and fatigue as well as the anxiety and depression prompted by worries about the reoccurrence of cancer.
Survivors will be able to regularly see BMT specialists who also have expertise in other medical areas, creating a one-stop treatment plan that reduces secondary and potentially stressful doctor visits elsewhere. “Our big vision is to integrate multidisciplinary care into the BMT program,” says MGH oncologist Areej El-Jawahri, MD, who is leading the creation of the BMT Survivorship Program. She and Dr. Chen hope to open the clinic next year.
The roots of Cliff Hirsch’s involvement go back to November 2012, when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The news was devastating, and especially difficult to share with his wife, Marilyn, and their two grown children. But he forged ahead.
Transplanted Cells Attack
For five months, Cliff underwent chemotherapy treatment, bringing his laptop to Mass General to continue his work as an engineer and consultant and not telling colleagues and clients about his illness. He also continued running and skiing. Cliff’s stem cells were collected prior to chemotherapy, and in April 2013 they were returned in an autologous stem cell transplant.
Weak and mostly sleepless after seven additional days of chemotherapy that preceded the transplant, Cliff was hospitalized for 21 days.
Weak and mostly sleepless after seven additional days of chemotherapy that preceded the transplant, Cliff was hospitalized for 21 days. He recovered, though, and two months later he received a donor’s immune system in what is known as an allogeneic stem cell transplant.
In August 2013, doctors told Cliff his lymphoma was in remission but he soon learned that surviving cancer didn’t mean fully escaping its clutches. After tapering the use of immunosuppression drugs that had helped his system accept the donated stem cells, he acquired chronic Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD). Essentially, the transplanted cells attacked his body.
Enjoying the Extra Time
GVHD struck nerve endings in Cliff’s corneas; his eyes stopped producing tears. He has to wear prosthetic lenses that bathe his eyes during the day. He also has to avoid sun exposure, and wears heavy clothing in daylight, even during summer.
Still, Cliff’s GVHD is moderate. After learning many fellow bone marrow transplant survivors had it worse than he did, Cliff asked Dr. Chen how he could make a difference.
By competing in a recent half-marathon in Fairfield, Conn., Cliff and other team members generated more than $138,000 to support the BMT initiative.
Their conversation prompted Cliff to start a community fundraising team dedicated to supporting Mass General’s new BMT survivor clinic. The team was known as “Team Irregulo” – a name his friends had years before given themselves as a counterpoint to their children’s “Allegro” ski team. By competing in a recent half-marathon in Fairfield, Conn., Cliff and other team members generated more than $138,000 to support the BMT initiative.
“Every day is a struggle but I know I’m better off than some BMT survivors,” Cliff says. “That’s why the survivorship program is important to me. I’m convinced it will make great strides in improving treatment and helping survivors enjoy the extra time they have been given.”
To learn how you can support the BMT Survivorship Clinic, please contact us.
Our website can also provide more information about how you can start an MGH community fundraising effort of your own.