Lost— and Saved
Thinking he had nothing more serious than a persistent cold, Doug Waldron put off seeing his doctor. When he finally sought help, he was told that he had about a month to live. Two and a half years later, he’s fought through two cancers, diabetes, and a heart attack, but now he’s feeling fine
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Doug Waldron, back on track after facing what could have been the end
At first, Doug Waldron thought he had a cold. It lingered for a few months and settled into a constant cough, causing some pain on one side, in his upper ribs. “When I was younger, I had had pleurisy, and this was what it felt like,” says Doug, now 72, a retiree who lives in Round Lake Beach, 50 miles north of Chicago. “Like a cold that had gotten worse and settled in my upper side.”
“Every day I would ask him if he’d called the doctor, and every day he’d say, ‘No, I’m going to be all right. It will go away,’” recalls Doug’s wife, Diane. Finally, she made an appointment for him. During the exam, Doug’s internist thought he heard some congestion in his lungs, so he ordered a chest x-ray. The x-ray showed a faint dark spot on one lung, and Waldron was referred to the Condell Medical Center in nearby Libertyville, where a CAT scan was performed.
The first scan accidentally caught the top of Doug’s liver, and to the surprise of the Waldrons—and that of the technicians, as well—it revealed what appeared to be a tumor. “The doctor called us and said now there needed to be a scan of his liver,” recalls Diane. “And he also said that we should know that something serious was probably going on here.”
The second scan was performed at the Condell Medical Center, and by the time the Waldrons were walking back into their house later that day, their phone was ringing with the results: The tumor in Doug’s liver was extremely large, about ten inches in diameter. More tests, including outpatient biopsies, were scheduled. Those revealed stage four liver cancer. The dark spot on Doug’s lung was a separate kind of cancer, less advanced and less immediately life threatening than the liver cancer.
The liver cancer, the Waldrons were told, was a medically dire situation. “When I heard that, I just walked out of the doctor’s office,” says Doug. “I didn’t want to know any more. I already knew enough.” Diane was well aware of her husband’s other medical challenges: He had diabetes, glaucoma, and collapsing veins in his legs, which limited his ability to walk. He smoked and was overweight. She pressed the doctor to give her an unvarnished prognosis. Chemotherapy was out, she was told. The tumor was too large. The doctor believed that Doug had about a month to live.
That nightmare diagnosis was made in July 2006. Today, more than two and a half years later, the Waldrons sit around their dining-room table drinking diet soda, shooing away their dog, and reveling in the unexpected outcome of Doug’s illness. Life is good these days.
Team players: The doctors Mary Mulcahy and Riad Salem were crucial members of the group that treated Doug Waldron at North- western Memorial Hospital.
“The liver tumor is gone, and this is what we call a wow outcome,” says the oncology radiologist Riad Salem in a phone interview. Salem is the director of interventional oncology at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. The Waldrons’ determination to search for the most advanced medical treatment that suited their case illustrates how even the worst diagnosis can sometimes be overcome. Interventional radiology is a subspecialty practiced at major academic medical centers, and Salem treated Doug’s liver cancer with radio- embolization—a new technique approved by the FDA in 2000. North- western is now the world’s busiest center for the treatment.
“I live and breathe these kinds of treatments, and so I know how extraordinary the good end result Doug got is,” says Salem. “The term ‘cancer-free’ is a difficult term for us, as physicians, to use. But it has been two years now, and he has no tumor in his liver, no tumor in his lungs. No signs of cancer at all.”
The Waldrons met in California and soon moved to Muskegon, Michigan, where Doug worked in an office-furniture factory, and they married in 1970—Diane had a son from a previous marriage, and Doug had three children. When Doug retired in 1990, the Waldrons moved to Tucson, Arizona. They liked the sun, and the dry heat agreed with them. But when one of their sons started working in Chicago, he urged them to move to this area. “He would say, ‘You’re not getting any younger, and if something happens, you are going to need help,’” recalls Diane. So the couple sold their Tucson home and moved to a pleasant two-story house beside a park in Round Lake Beach.
When Doug was diagnosed with cancer, they felt that the time for help had come. But at first, they couldn’t find any. They visited several oncologists and cancer specialists, looking for a treatment plan. “One wanted to talk about taking vitamins and finding my spiritual path,” says Doug. “Others said they couldn’t do anything for us,” Diane adds. Finally, the oncology specialist in Libertyville, Dean Tsarwhas, referred the Waldrons to Mary Mul-cahy, an oncologist at the Robert H.
Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I pull the medical team together to review what our options and limitations are,” says Mulcahy. “In a complicated situation like this, we do a lot of talking, both with the patient and with the team as we decide how to proceed.” Two days later, the Waldrons went to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“I thought we would be meeting with one doctor there,” says Diane. “But instead we were led into a conference room, and all these doctors and their nurses came in to discuss Doug’s case.” It was decided that the first step was up to Mulcahy and Salem. “I specialize in complex cancer therapies,” Salem explains. “The idea was if I could do something for the liver, then maybe we could move on and consider doing something for the lungs.” Salem has bachelor’s and medical degrees from McGill University in Montreal and an MBA from George Washington University; he has also held a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Photography: Tom Maday