Stories of Hope
Colon Cancer Survivor Proves Doctors Wrong
Article date: March 8, 2003
We don't necessarily have to be a statistic…. I believe the medical folks treat us for the disease, but they don't teach us how to survive. We must learn that for ourselves.
At age 68, Robert Vandegrift had enjoyed a rich life including 7 children, 22 grandchildren, and a stable career in beautiful Bountiful, Utah. He'd written radio shows, started a small theater, and published a newspaper in his spare time. But all that now seems uneventful compared to his remarkable, against-all-odds recovery from advanced colon cancer.
Abdominal pain prompted him to see his doctor in early December 1996. Before the month's end he'd had surgery to remove a baseball-sized tumor from his colon. He faced stage IV colon cancer that had spread to both lobes of his liver.
The outlook was grim: his surgeon told him statistically he had between six months and two years left to live. Chemotherapy could keep him alive for a short time. The doctor confided to Vandegrift's family it would be closer to four months.
Vandegrift wasn't ready to die, nor did he like the stark prediction of certain death. "As long as you are living, there is an opportunity to survive," he explained. "If you don't get hope from your doctor, fire your doctor," he tells those who ask for advice.
Vandegrift researched his options and skipped chemotherapy. Three months later surgeons tried to remove the cancer from his liver, but were unable to do so safely. During his stay at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center Hospital he discovered and enrolled in a stage III clinical trial of the oral medicine, capecitabine (brand name: Xeloda).
This 50-50 chance that he would get an experimental drug fueled his hopes for recovery. For good measure, he invented his own cancer-zapping computer game. With help from hospital social worker John Conlee, who was then studying visualization, Vandegrift loaded scans of his liver into his home computer.
The Homemade Cancer-Zapping Computer Game
"I was deep into looking at the tumors everyday on my computer. I had my liver scans and I erased the tumors on my liver." He would also print the scans and laboriously erase the dark ink of the tumors, or carefully scrape them off the paper with a razor blade.
"You have to develop something to get you up when you're down. You have to take action," he said.
ACS physician spokesman Len Lichtenfeld, MD, notes, "A feeling of control is better for quality of life, feeling better, and keeping going. Having hope is important."
Treatments for the clinical trial began the first week of April 1997, and Vandegrift was sure he was in the group trying capecitabine, although he didn't have many physical signs of chemotherapy. He didn't lose his hair and other side effects like fatigue were very mild. His daily life didn't change much because he took the medicine by mouth instead of spending several hours on IV in a clinic. He waited.
The First Glimpse of Progress
In mid-May -about six weeks late-a new scan of his liver showed the tumors were significantly smaller. His oncologist, Saundra Buys, MD, called it remarkable and said she'd never seen such a dramatic reduction in cancer during her practice. Study directors kept Vandegrift on capecitabine for as long as he was improving, so he continued to take the medicine for five years.
"He's really had a virtually complete response," Buys explained. "He's got very little cancer left on CT scans, and it could just be scarring."
But very few of the other patients in the clinical trial did as well, and the study found that capecitabine did not help people live any longer than the standard treatment. As Vandegrift survived year after year, his recovery stood out as a medical mystery.
"There are always going to be a few patients that respond exceptionally well, for reasons that we don't understand," explained Lichtenfeld.
The Vandegrift Hypothesis
"Robert used everything from both ends of the spectrum: traditional scientific and the complete other side, like prayer, forgiveness, contacting people from the past, things that are psychically good," said Buys, "…things that can't be measured."
"Some say that I am a miracle," Vandergrift said. "I’m uncomfortable with that. A miracle implies a short cut – perhaps, divine intervention. If there had been a short cut, my cancer would be completely gone."
"The miracle is in science and education," he insists. Now 74-years-old, Robert Vandegrift has self-published a book about his cancer experience, including the mental and physical methods he believes helped him survive. He sent copies to the doctors and health professionals who treated him and received some interesting responses. From a project coordinator: "I formally noted the existence of the Vandegrift hypothesis yesterday." From Dr. Buys: "Thanks for letting me be a part of this miracle."