After Surviving 9/11 & Cancer, a Brooklyn Dad Gives Back

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Mark Bramonte defies odds, survives twice, then gives back at Relay For Life

Bronx, N.Y. (June 27, 2011)– Father’s Day had special meaning for Mark Bramante.  He will enjoyed the holiday weekend with his wife and three children at the American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.  Beyond a roster of exceptional Dad duties, the family celebrated a milestone for Mark — ten years of survival. But not just cancer.

On September 10, 2001, Mark visited his doctor for a routine medical visit.  The doctor listened to his chest, took some blood, and sent him on his way. 

On September 11, 2001, Mark went to work on the 80th floor of the World Trade Center.  He was sitting at his desk when the first plane hit the North Tower.  He was just 20 floors down when the second plane ripped through his office.  His boss and coworkers were among the dead but Mark narrowly survived.  Though his world was shattered, Mark considered himself lucky.

Then, a week later, Mark’s doctor called.  There was a problem with his blood work. 

“They wanted me to come back in for more tests, but I put it off,” Mark recounts. “I was too busy working the phones trying to find missing colleagues and rebuild our company from a couple of folding tables and chairs in our recovery site in Jersey City. From our window we could see the smoldering pile across the river. I was not thinking too much about more blood work.”

A few days later Mark went back for a follow-up. In the waiting room, the doctor would not look at him or his wife. Upon entering the exam room, the first words out of his doctor’s mouth were, "I am so sorry…do you have any children?" Mark’s heart sank.  His children were just 11, 8 and 5 years old.

The diagnosis was CLL – or chronic lymphocytic leukemia – a slowly progressing cancer that attacks the blood and bone marrow. 

“He said he had never seen a case of CLL in someone so young, I was only 38, and that he estimated I had ten years to live,” Mark explains. “I thought it somehow unfair that I survived a terrorist attack, now only to be killed by cancer.”

Mark began seven years of what the doctors called "watch and wait," although Mark knew it only as “watch and worry.” Feeling trapped in a helpless situation, Mark did the only thing he could—research.

“I found that there was a trial of a combination of chemotherapy and monoclonal antibodies that was showing some promise,” Mark says.

The cocktail was called CFR: Cytoxan, Fludarabine and Rituxan. Cytoxan and Fludarabine were commonly used to treat this disease, but Rituxan – a drug developed based on the work of American Cancer Society Clinical Research Professor Ronald Levy – was a new and uncertain ingredient. Originally it had been used to treat B-cell lymphoma, but now research was hinting that it could treat CLL too.

“The Rituxan seemed to work to make the chemo act in a more targeted way, like a smart bomb,” Mark explains. “So I asked my doctor about it. Of course she knew about it and said that trials were in the works, but that right now it was too soon.”

Mark kept reading and researching. Through his "watch and wait" time the research got better and better. He learned that researchers were able to use genetic markers to get a better idea of the impact the CFR combo might make.

“As I read, I understood about 10% of the medical jargon, but the message from every article was clear. Buying time was the key,” Mark explains. “As the months went by, I was just hoping that the research would outpace my disease progression.”

It did.

By 2008, just as CFR began late-stage trials, it was clear that Mark had to begin treatment. His white blood cell count was at 300,000 when it should have been 6,000 and he had huge swollen nodes in his neck.

“They made me look like Frankenstein,” Mark recalls. “In fact that was the joke I used to tell my kids when they asked about the lumps. I said that was just skin covering the bolts that held my head on.”

Mark's doctor gave the green light to begin CFR chemotherapy. He checked into the hospital on January 12, 2009 and received treatments from January 12-15. In the first two days, Marks’ white blood cell count dropped to nearly normal levels. On January 15, as the last round of Mark’s miracle drug was being administered, Mark watched on television as another miracle took place not far from his hospital room: the "Miracle on the Hudson" plane landing.

“It seemed fitting that this scary journey started around a terrible event, 9/11, and was being capped off by a happy event, the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’,” he continues.

But Mark concurs that, in truth, neither was a miracle.  “Both happy endings of lives being saved were accomplished by skilled professionals, pilots and doctors.  In my case the doctors were aided by research that lead to me being treated in just the right CFR combination.”

Mark and his whole family are now actively involved with the American Cancer Society, the organization that helped developed his “miracle drug” Rituxan.  His wife, Graceann, and daughter Stephanie both sit on the Volunteer Committee for Relay For Life of Bay Ridge.  The whole family, including his other two children Christa and Matthew, attend the event annually.  Their goal is to raise money for the kind of cancer research that saved Mark’s life.

“Because of American Cancer Society research dollars, I am healthy today,” Mark says, “and this is part of the reason why my family has dedicated massive amounts of time to Relay For Life. Hopefully research will lead the way so that others can be as fortunate as I am.”

The American Cancer Society & Rituxan
American Cancer Society Professor Ron Levy pioneered research leading to the development and FDA approval of Rituxan for B-cell lymphoma in 1997.  The drug was not FDA approved for the treatment of CLL until early 2010. The American Cancer Society continues to invest money into treatments for CLL and other cancer types.

Since its founding in 1946, the American Cancer Society’s extramural research grants program has devoted more than $3.5 billion to cancer research. It has funded 44 researchers who have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Locally the American Cancer Society will have 80 education and research grants totaling $46 million active in New York as of July 1st.

Additional Resources
Donate to Mark's Relay For Life team
Watch Mark and his family on PIX11 in New York
Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society
Relay For Life

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About the American Cancer Society
The American Cancer Society combines an unyielding passion with nearly a century of experience to save lives and end suffering from cancer. As a global grassroots force of more than three million volunteers, we fight for every birthday threatened by every cancer in every community. We save lives by helping people stay well by preventing cancer or detecting it early; helping people get well by being there for them during and after a cancer diagnosis; by finding cures through investment in groundbreaking discovery; and by fighting back by rallying lawmakers to pass laws to defeat cancer and by rallying communities worldwide to join the fight. As the nation’s largest non-governmental investor in cancer research, contributing more than $3.4 billion, we turn what we know about cancer into what we do. As a result, more than 11 million people in America who have had cancer and countless more who have avoided it will be celebrating birthdays this year. To learn more about us or to get help, call us any time, day or night, at 1-800-227-2345 or visit cancer.org.