Morning after morning, countless Bay Staters go through the motions of the daily grind, battling the elements of traffic, weather or crowds on the MBTA.
One Tyngsborough resident does so with a smile on his face.
“Everyday is like winning the lottery,” said Steven Schatzkin, a cancer survivor. “I’ve always been optimistic, but I’m even more appreciative of life now. You make every moment count. Just to be sitting in traffic on the way to work is incredible. Going through something like this, it definitely shifts your focus.”
Schatzkin is enjoying his second lease on life thanks to an aggressive treatment path, combined with an innovative new stimulant for stem cell growth.
The software consultant, husband and father of two was diagnosed in December 2004. That winter, he began noticing rapid weight loss and extreme pain in his arm after shoveling snow. X-rays taken at Emerson Hospital in Concord revealed a mass in his lymph nodes and a CAT scan confirmed stage III non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his spine.
“It was like a rug being pulled right out from under me; I literally collapsed in the parking lot,” said Schatzkin. “Here I was a healthy individual, and then I was told I had cancer. It changes your life instantly. I was just crushed beyond anything.”
For the next six months, Schatzkin was treated with eight rounds of chemotherapy. He went into a four-month remission, during which time he celebrated with a family vacation. His first post-treatment scan revealed that the cancer had returned.
“It rocks your world just as much the second time,” said Schatzkin. “It was just as devastating.”
Schatzkin was immediately sent to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for higher doses of chemotherapy, administered five hours a day for three days. Because the high-dose chemotherapy destroys bone marrow, which prevents new blood cells from being formed, Schatzkin required a stem cell transplant. He participated in a clinical trial of Mozobil, a drug developed by Genzyme to help mobilize stem cells in non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma patients. In doing so, he was able to harvest more than 7 million stem cells and serve as his own donor.
“After going through with the clinical trial, I was so glad I did,” said Schatzkin. “I’m part of the living proof of some of the work that companies like Genzyme have done. Where would we be without them, without all these various pieces – the medical staff, the pharmaceuticals and the biotech companies?”
Following the successful stem cell harvest, Schatzkin underwent 24 hours of chemotherapy for three days, causing his blood count and immune system to plummet to zero. After the treatment, he received an infusion of the blood-forming stem cells and went into a three-week period of recuperation to build back his immune system.
“You have no energy, just getting up is like running a marathon,” he said. “But after the three weeks, you do what you can to keep active. Everyday I would get on the exercise bike, even if it was just for a few minutes. I didn’t want to be a victim. No matter how sore or tired I was, everyday I got out of bed.”
Schatzkin has now been cancer-free for 3½ years. He has continued to pursue a physically active lifestyle, mountain climbing and participating in walks for cancer research.
“It changed my life in every way,” he said. “When you go through this process, just to witness the kindness, love and support – even from complete strangers and all the doctors and nurses – it was incredible. Now it’s my turn to give it back.”
This year, Schatzkin was able to ride in the Pan-Mass Challenge, the 140-mile bike-a-thon for cancer research and treatment.
“Just to be part of that was amazing,” said Schatzkin. “I was riding, not only for myself, but in memory of or in honor of at least 10 people. It was beyond emotional. I had tears in my eyes crossing that finish line.”
Since his recovery, Schatzkin has also served as an online mentor to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients, offering advice and sharing his personal story on several message board sites.
“They’re often overwhelmed and have thousands of questions, but they don’t know what to ask,” he said. “It helps to hear from others who have been through it already and are doing well. It just gives you that sense of hope.”
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