Stuart Klein spent his whole life healing others. As an acupuncturist, he dedicated his career to solving the health problems of others, from relieving minor aches to curing chronic pain that medication couldn’t. His wife, Janice, recalls regularly receiving flowers and gifts and thank you notes in the mail from his patients, people who now lived freer, happier lives thanks to Stuart’s work.
In June of 2020, after experiencing trouble swallowing, Stuart was referred to the Mass General Cancer Center where he was diagnosed with non-metastatic lower esophageal adenocarcinoma. Unfortunately, Stuart’s particular tumor did not respond to the standard course of chemotherapy and radiation, and by the end of his treatment cycle, his cancer had aggressively metastasized and spread to other parts of his body. Stuart wasn’t ready to give up, though, and neither was his medical oncologist at Mass General, Samuel Klempner, MD.
Dr. Klempner was determined to see if another treatment might be effective. He conducted liquid DNA testing for genetic sequencing, in addition to the earlier testing of Stuart’s tumor samples. He found that Stuart’s circulating tumor DNA had an epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) amplification, which has no existing therapy for esophageal cancer. Stuart and Janice felt like they were running out of options.
High Risk, High Reward
When Stuart was suffering from the all-encompassing pain of metastasized esophageal cancer, Dr. Klempner became the healer for him that Stuart had always been for others, taking a chance on a treatment that other oncologists were unwilling to try. In his line of research, Dr. Klempner had studied the drug cetuximab, a monoclonal antibody approved for treating colon cancer that showed promise as an effective, but non-standard therapy for the esophageal cancer Stuart had.
Despite contrasting opinions from his colleagues, Dr. Klempner recommended taking a chance on this novel treatment, and, at Janice’s request, provided information about research studies on the drug. With few other options, and buoyed by those studies, Janice and Stuart agreed to try. “He got the treatment that day. That night, the pain stopped,” Janice recalls gratefully. Dr. Klempner described Stuart’s scans prior to treatment looking almost like a Christmas tree. Following the cetuximab infusions, his scans looked as though someone had unplugged the tree — almost all of the tumors that had once appeared as bright green dots were gone. A few days later, Stuart was pain-free, out of the wheelchair and hiking miles a day.
“He fought for us. He didn’t give up on us,” Janice says of Dr. Klempner. “I think there aren’t that many oncologists who would have kept the faith. We really felt like we had a team, with Dr. Klempner and Ted Hong, MD, and that they were going to fight for Stuart until there was no other way to fight.”
In Sickness and In Health
Stuart and Janice were partners for 28 years, had gotten a marriage license and were planning a wedding when they received his cancer diagnosis. They were suddenly entirely focused on Stuart’s treatment. For months, the cetuximab successfully blocked his cancer. Then other mutations began to increase. When Stuart was rushed to the emergency department in October 2021, Janice had a gut feeling that his hold on life was precarious. Knowing how much he had wanted to marry, she rushed to city hall to get a new marriage license so that they could be married in the emergency department by a hospital chaplain. When she returned, she recalls, “The nurses, doctors and chaplain had decorated the room with flowers and hearts and crepe paper. It was gorgeous. It didn’t even look like an ER. They bought lovely silver rings for us, and cakes and cupcakes and lights. Everyone in the ER who was ambulatory came. And Stuart was so happy.”
The next morning, Stuart passed away.
On June 28, 2022, Janice returned to Mass General for a surprise reunion with the caregivers who spontaneously pulled together their ER wedding. The group gathered in the Yawkey Building Healing Garden, where they found Janice waiting for them with handmade pendants that she gifted to each of them. “I will always remember each one of you,” she said. “You will be in my heart forever.”
Investing in Mass General
Before Stuart passed, he and Janice discussed giving back to Mass General, inspired both by the incredible care they received and to accelerate research on esophageal cancer. They made a gift to create a fund at Mass General to support the work that Dr. Klempner and others are doing.
Philanthropic support is transformational because it allows physician-researchers at Mass General to pursue out-of-the-box ideas to generate data and secure additional funding. It enables ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research, which is almost impossible to conduct without philanthropy or private funding.
Janice has hope that her gift will give others the chance that Stuart never had. “Few people realize that esophageal cancer is one of the deadliest, fastest growing, yet least researched cancers. The work being done at Mass General is where we’re going to find breakthroughs. We’re on a new wave now. Those facing cancer have new hope. And it’s important to invest in that.”
To learn more about how to support Stuart and Janice’s Fund for Esophageal Cancer research, please click here.
To learn more about how to support the Mass General Cancer Center, please contact us.