"The longer I go, the more I sense things might last longer than I originally thought four years ago," says Paul Keane, an unassuming man in a striped shirt and blue jeans who sits with his hands folded neatly on his lap while receiving fluids as part of his clinical trial treatment at Dana-Farber. "I've come to accept it. This is my new life. The new normal."
Keane, who will be 57 in January, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells in bone marrow, in September 2003. While the disease is treatable, it is also incurable. Sadly, the five-year relative survival rate is around 35 percent.
Ironically, Keane first started feeling ill while walking in the 2003 Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk, which benefits Dana-Farber. "I made it to 20 miles and knew something was very wrong," he recalls. "I felt funny and had to stop at the top of Heartbreak Hill. The next day at work I felt the normal soreness one feels after the walk. Later that night, I had a heart attack and went to the hospital. My kidneys shut down and a bone biopsy confirmed multiple myeloma."
Since being diagnosed, Keane has had an unsuccessful stem cell transplant, been on and off several clinical trials and almost a dozen different drugs. He can rattle off the names of prescriptions like a talking medical dictionary.
Keane is one of about 47,000 Dana-Farber patients on clinical trials, willing to try anything to improve his odds of survival and further cancer research. Christine Parker, MD, associate director for faculty activities in Dana-Farber's Office of Research, says a lot of patients misunderstand what clinical trials are all about. Clinical trials are often the next choice for patients who don't respond to standard treatments, but first and foremost their purpose is to answer scientific questions, such as whether a new treatment is safe, and then if that treatment is effective, or better than the current remedy.
"The ultimate goal is to improve clinical care for patients in the future," says Parker, "and the only way we can do that is to perform clinical trials."
The Walpole native is currently on his seventh cycle of a new protocol that calls for a five-hour infusion, plus one-hour observation, once a month. Sitting in a royal-blue colored infusion chair in the Jimmy Fund building's Clinical Research Center during a recent treatment, Keane patiently reads Golf magazine. He is one of three participants in the trial at Dana-Farber. Though he hopes that participating in trials will prolong his life or find a cure, he takes some comfort in knowing his efforts will help others no matter the outcome.
"The clinical trial's purpose is to keep me alive longer so the doctors can learn more about the condition. It's scary to hear there is no known cure for my disease. It gets a little depressing on occasion, but it seems the longer you are around, the more drugs there are, the more chance of survival," he says.
The former chief financial officer of a small public relations firm downtown says what's often difficult to handle is a drug will work for a limited time, but then the body builds up immunity to it.
"You play each one as long as you can. What's important for others to learn is to get themselves to an academic institution well known for treating cancer and doing leading-edge research," adds Keane. "I'm fortunate to live near Dana-Farber."
August 2010 update: Three years since this article was written, Paul Keane continues to do well and is on a new clinical trial. When not at Dana-Farber for treatment twice a week, Keane says he continues his longtime effort of perfecting his golf game and is looking forward to doing some traveling this winter.
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