Author: Denise Sautters
Rich Bartlett is looking forward to getting back to his hobbies — woodworking and nature watching — and enjoying a good steak and potato dinner. Until then, though, he is in a fight for his life, one he plans to win.
Bartlett is a cancer patient and the first participant in a clinical trial at University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center in Cleveland to test the safety of an immunotherapy drug — Pembrolizumab — when added to a regimen of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Back to the beginning
Bartlett went to the dentist in October for a checkup.
“He had a sore in his mouth he thought was an abscess,” explained his wife, Nancy Bartlett, who pointed out that, because radiation and chemo treatments cause the inside of the mouth to burn and blister, it is hard for Bartlett to talk.
“When the dentist looked at his sore, he sent Richard to a specialist in Canton, and in early November, he had a biopsy done. It came back positive for cancer.”
From there, he was referred to Dr. Pierre Lavertu, director of head and neck surgery and oncology at University Hospitals, and Dr. Chad Zender from the otolaryngology department, who did Bartlett’s surgery.
“They let us know it was serious,” said Nancy. “It had gone into the bone and the roof of the mouth, but they were not sure if it had gone into the lymph nodes. By the time we got through that appointment, it was the first part of December and (they) scheduled him for surgery on Dec. 22.”
The cancer tripled in size by then and the surgery lasted 10 hours. Doctors had to remove the tumor, all of the lymph nodes and parts of the jaw and the roof of Bartlett’s mouth.
“They harvested skin from his hand to rebuild the inside of his mouth, and took the veins and arteries and reattached everything through his (right) cheek,” she said. “He could not even have water until February because of the patch. He uses a feeding tube to eat now.”
The tube is temporary until Bartlett heals.
Just before he started chemo and radiation therapies, the hospital called him about the clinical trial.
The trial is the first to use quadra-modality therapy — or four different types of therapy — against the cancer, according to Dr. Min Yao, the principal investigator.
Yao said Bartlett has squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity, with only a 50 percent chance of survival.
“Patients have surgery, then followed by six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy and immunotherapy,” Yao said in an email interview. “That is followed by six more months of immunotherapy, one dose every three weeks.”
Bartlett currently is in the radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy part of the study.
“It is too early to tell how he is responding,” said Yao. “His tumor has been resected. After the treatment, we will see them periodically with scans. Cancer often recurs in the first two years after treatment.”
Pembrolizumab originally was developed to activate the body’s immune system in the fight against melanoma. Former president Jimmy Carter was treated with the drug for his brain metastases from melanoma in 2015.
A truck driver by trade, Bartlett will undergo daily fluoride treatments for the rest of his life to protect his teeth.
“We did not realize until we got to Cleveland just how bad this was,” said Nancy. “When you have oral cancer, and they are getting ready to do radiation and chemo, you have to go have your teeth cleaned and examined and get anything done that needs to be done because radiation tends to compromise your blood flow in your mouth. That was a step we didn’t know.”
Although he was shocked to hear the outcome of that sore in his mouth, Bartlett is grateful to be a part of the trial.
“Who wouldn’t feel good about something like this? I mean, you got something that was used on Jimmy Carter, who is recovered and is now making public appearances again,” said Bartlett, who is looking forward to June when hopefully he can start eating again and enjoying his hobbies.
“I am very hopeful about this. The whole thing has been a trial. I have a dentist in Cleveland who said I was going to be in the fight of my life, and I am. I am in a huge fight. The chemotherapy is what has knocked me down the most, but I am very positive about the outcome of this.”