Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Climb of a lifetime

“In the past I might have put it off, but the cancer kicked in and said ‘No, do it now,’” says Bob Holdsworth about deciding to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. Though not the first to summit this 19,330-foot-tall mountain, he was among the first to participate in a clinical trial at the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center that improved his odds of survival and blazed the treatment trail for others.

In 2003, Holdsworth, an active 50-year-old computer industry sales professional, was diagnosed with stage III oral cancer that had metastasized to a lymph node. He sought several opinions and selected Laurence DiNardo, M.D., FACS, director of Massey’s Head and Neck Cancer Clinic.

DiNardo recommended a clinical trial — one of the first nationwide for intensity modulated radiotherapy, which allows for high doses of radiation directly to the tumor while sparing the healthy surrounding tissue.

“Bob was an excellent candidate because of the advanced stage of his disease,” DiNardo says. “The trial offered a new and more aggressive treatment combination of radiation and chemotherapy, and Bob had no reason not to be as aggressive as possible.”

For Holdsworth, the trial was the best option compared to having surgeries and longer chemotherapy treatments.

“The side effects of treatment for oral cancers can be very challenging,” says Diane Holdford, R.N., B.S.N., a clinical research coordinator who closely followed Holdsworth. “Bob experienced debilitating mouth sores and inability to swallow, and he had to be fed through a tube and receive daily fluid transfusions.”

Nonetheless, the IMRT and chemotherapy regimen proved successful and eliminated his cancer.

Holdsworth found that after treatment, his desire to live life to the fullest was a powerful motivator to regain his fitness. “It sounds trite, but the smell of flowers, the sunrise, it all takes on a new dimension after cancer, and I don’t want to take it for granted,” he says.

This renewed sense of life led Holdsworth to Africa last December to fulfill dreams of seeing the pyramids in Egypt and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The grueling eight-day climb brought him to the summit in time to ring in New Year’s Day, five years after surviving cancer.

“That climb was a wonderful gift,” he reflects. “Unlike many of my fellow climbers for whom the suffering was part of the journey, for me it was all about joy. I told them, ‘I’ve done my suffering and made it to the other side — this is fun.’”

Today, Massey’s radiation oncology program continues to be a national leader in IMRT and other advanced technologies, thanks to Holdsworth and many others who participate in clinical trials.

“The information we have on Bob’s response to treatment becomes part of our scientific body of knowledge — part of the official record that validates the superiority of IMRT to other options,” says Mitchell Anscher, M.D., chair of the VCU Department of Radiation Oncology. “IMRT today is a new best standard of care for many clinical situations, and it will benefit countless other cancer patients worldwide.”