6 min readPublished On: April 17, 2024

Bob Tracey Becomes a Villager and a Cancer Survivor with the Help of our Local Cancer Treatment Network

Remission without Chemo

“Before I got my cancer diagnosis, I figured I would die of cancer or a heart attack,” says Bob Tracey, who retired from the Baltimore County Fire Department in 2016 after 35 years as a professional firefighter.

Cancer recently surpassed heart disease as the number one cause of firefighter fatalities, so Bob wasn’t betting against the odds. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), firefighters are 9% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the general public and 14% more likely to die from it.

“I was probably more afraid of cancer than anything heart-related,” Bob explains. “With heart disease, you go to sleep one night and don’t wake up. With cancer, you’ll go through chemo, lose your hair, lose weight. People won’t know what to say to you, and it’ll take you a year or two to die.”

Worst Fears Realized
About a year after retirement, Bob’s annual physical showed some concerning blood work. His white cell count was a little high, so he was sent to an oncologist “just to be sure.”

That precautionary visit to the oncologist eventually developed into a cancer diagnosis. The most common form of leukemia in adults, chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a blood cancer that begins in the bone marrow.

When Bob was diagnosed with CLL, his doctor tried to soften the news by telling him and his wife, Ann, it was no big deal. They could control the disease, and Bob would be fine.

Bob wasn’t buying it. “I looked at Ann and asked what her father died of, although I already knew,” Bob says. In front of the doctor, in that tense moment, Ann articulated Bob’s concerns. Her father died from CLL. When he received his diagnosis, the doctors said it was no big deal, but after an agonizing attempt at treatment he died a year later.

Moving Forward
One certainty came out of Bob’s cancer diagnosis: he was moving to Florida! Bob discovered The Villages in 2010 and fell in love with it. If he didn’t go now, he thought, when would he go? He and Ann settled on their new house in The Villages in January 2022.

After the move to The Villages, Bob had his first appointment with Dr. Javier Pinilla-Ibarz, lymphoma section head and director of immunotherapy at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. Since his diagnosis, Bob had had blood tests every three months which documented a steady rise in his white blood cell count. It was in the 400s when he first went to Moffitt.

Three months later, Bob’s white count hit 500 and it was time to develop a treatment plan. He was presented two options: a four-month course of infusions or a drug therapy he would have to take every day for the rest of his life.

At first the decision seemed easy because Bob would do anything to avoid the chemotherapy his father-in-law experienced. But there are drawbacks to taking a drug for the rest of your life, not the least of which are cost and availability. Bob and Ann did their homework, talked with anyone they knew who had experience with cancer treatments, and finally decided on the infusions.

Near the end of January 2023, Bob went to the Moffitt Cancer Center at Wesley Chapel for his first infusion. On the first day, they administered 10% of the infusion while watching for side-effects. He and Ann stayed in a hotel to be close to the hospital in case there were problems.

“When I woke up the next day, everything seemed clearer and brighter,” Bob says. “I couldn’t believe the difference overnight.” The following day, Bob had the remainder of his infusion dose and went home.

The following week, Bob showed up for his second infusion and learned his white blood cell count had already dropped several hundred points. The news made him and Ann both tear up. Bob continued to tolerate his infusion treatments every week for the first month.

Not Her Father’s Chemo
“We started Bob’s therapy at Moffitt since we are more familiar with the possible adverse side effects of certain infusions,” Dr. Pinilla-Ibarz says. “After a month, he was transitioned to Florida Cancer Specialists to receive treatment locally.”

Bob’s weekly commute for infusions went from two hours to fifteen minutes. Dr. Maen Hussein, medical oncologist and hematologist, managed Bob’s care through the rest of his infusions and was able to inform Bob in February 2024 that he’d achieved remission.

“I didn’t feel sick or look sick through the entire treatment process,” Bob declares. “I was expecting my hair to fall out and my skin to get pale like when Ann’s dad was on chemo.”

“Bob didn’t get chemotherapy—the stuff that makes you lose your hair,” Dr. Hussein clarifies. “Oncology is evolving very fast. We’re having much better outcomes and far fewer side effects with immunotherapies.”

The chemotherapy used to treat CLL twenty years ago, when Ann’s father was diagnosed, was highly toxic. It killed cancer cells, but many patients did not survive the side effects. Immunotherapies, like the treatment Bob had, stimulate the immune system to fight the cancer. They can target and block specific proteins the cancer cells require to grow and multiple, thereby stopping the cancer from taking over and crowding out the healthy cells.

The Treatment You Need
“The good thing about being part of this practice at Florida Cancer Specialists is that we have a good network throughout the state,” Dr. Hussein states. “We can refer patients to the best oncologists in their field. Moffitt is the best place for leukemia and other blood cancers.”

“We were warned not to move to Florida because the doctors are so bad,” Ann says.

“I don’t think we could have found better doctors, anywhere,” Bob retorts. He raves about the treatment he received at all three facilities, Moffitt in Tampa, Moffitt Wesley Chapel, and Florida Cancer Specialists in Brownwood. “There was always someone there trying to help you.”

“Bob’s case is a wonderful example of collaboration between academic institutions and community oncologists,” says Dr. Pinilla-Ibarz. “Moffitt has access to some of the newest treatments and clinical trials and works with a network of local providers.”

Bob will continue to visit Moffitt every three months for blood tests to monitor his white blood cell count.  “I thought remission meant it was over, that it’s gone. But they told me it will come back,” Bob says.

He’s not afraid of cancer anymore. Ann explains, “Bob’s remission gave us hope that cancer is not a death sentence anymore.” Bob even boasts that if you have to get cancer, CLL is the kind to get.

“When I get test results that indicate my numbers are up and the cancer is back, they’ll give me an infusion—like a booster to bring me back to remission.”

Bob is confident, “I beat cancer before, I’ll beat it again.”

About the Author: Christine Andola

Christine Andola
With a bachelor’s degree in communication from the State University of New York, College at New Paltz, in 1990 Christine embarked on a blind journey to building a career. She moved through teaching in the inner city public schools, reporting for a weekly newspaper, writing user manuals and technical documentation at a software company, lobbying and public relations at the state level for national associations and marketing for professional services firms. Christine’s writing portfolio includes everything from newspapers to grant proposals. She has developed web content, written blogs, ghost-written professional journal articles and drafted ad copy. From technical writing to lifestyle feature pieces, Christine lives by the value of words. She enjoys learning about the people around her and sharing information in a way that resonates with readers.

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