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Health care success stories told by the people who lived them


Meeting Cancer Head On

Oliver Sasse

Although Oliver Sasse had no symptoms from previously diagnosed kidney cancer for several years, his prospects didn't seem promising when it recurred.

In 2004, he moved from California to Washington. His health plan didn't move with him, so he chose UnitedHealthcare. Sasse's previous medical records preceded him to his first appointment, just before Christmas. "Prior to my visit, the doctor took the time to review my records," Sasse says. "He'd noticed that I'd had kidney cancer in 1996. Because I hadn't had a chest X-ray in three or four years, he ordered one."

"After reviewing my tests, the doctor came into the exam room and said 'We need to talk.' I thought 'Whoops, this doesn't sound good,'" he recalls.

It appeared that the cancer was on the move again. A CAT scan and three biopsies confirmed that the cancer had spread to his lungs.

The diagnosis took Sasse by surprise. A marathon walker, Sasse believed he was in excellent health. Three months prior to his doctor appointment, he'd walked the Portland Marathon with no problems. But, that's not surprising. Recurrent kidney cancer doesn't always produce symptoms. When it is discovered, it's difficult to treat because it's resistant to radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Despite the nasty turn of events, Sasse felt fortunate that his doctor's conscientiousness and focus on appropriate follow-up care brought the spreading cancer to light.

The next steps

Sasse was referred to a medical oncologist. Because of the challenges in treating kidney cancers, the oncologist told Sasse there wasn't much that he could do, "and to get my affairs in order." But Sasse had to believe there was an effective treatment, and he set out to find it.

At a UnitedHealthcare network kidney cancer treatment center in Portland, Providence Medical Center, Sasse found an oncologist who believed he could help. "When I first saw him, he told me 'I've looked at the records and you have three tumors. That's difficult [to treat]; it's not impossible,'" Sasse says. "I felt reassured at that point that at least there was some hope." Two treatments seemed to have the most potential, and Sasse and his doctor decided to try high-dosage interleukin 2 infusions*, "based on its success rate and end-of-treatment point," says Sasse.

"The oncologist's knowledge and careful assessment of my situation gave me hope," Sasse says. "His straightforward explanation of the treatment and possible outcome helped me prepare for the road ahead."

Treatment was grueling. For a week he'd have infusions every eight hours if he didn't have too may side effects. Then he'd take a week off from treatment and repeat the cycle. One side effect, short-term memory loss, erased his memory of the more difficult side effects – nausea, fever, chills, tremors, blood pressure fluctuations. The side effects ended when treatment did.

After completing a round of treatments he waited a month, and a CAT scan showed 20 percent reduction in the tumors. Good news; it meant he could have another round of treatment.

Throughout treatment, his doctor encouraged Sasse to continue exercising. Walking made him feel better; "like I was physically OK." It also gave him time to meditate and contemplate what was happening. Now, three years later, he's symptom free and walked a half and full marathon in 2006. "I plan to continue to walk in half marathons," he says.

Thanks to a positive attitude, aerobic exercise, an alert physician and a knowledgeable oncologist within the UnitedHealthcare network, Sasse looks forward to walking in many more marathons.

*Check your health plan benefits to find out which procedures are covered.

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