At 81 years old, Harold Rogers has had quite a ride. For 30 years, the St. Mary’s, Georgia, resident was an air traffic controller and corporate jet pilot. But nothing prepared Harold for a diagnosis in early 2009 of multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells inside bone marrow, which is considered incurable.
“I’d never heard of multiple myeloma. My primary care doctor said, ‘The good news is that it’s treatable. But it’s not curable,’” Harold says. “He then recommended I go to a cancer specialist.”
Harold opted to stay close to home and began chemotherapy in February 2009. When the treatment was over several months later, he was left with side effects that prompted him to get an evaluation at a different health care facility. That’s when he turned to Mayo Clinic.
“I wanted to see if I could get into Mayo for another opinion,” he says.
In June 2009, Harold traveled south to Jacksonville, Florida, where he met with Mayo Clinic hematologist-oncologist Lawrence Solberg, M.D., now retired. Dr. Solberg ordered a bone marrow biopsy. The results showed Harold was in remission.
Soon, Harold was able to fly again. He visited Mayo Clinic every three months for checkups for a time, but travel to and from Jacksonville became challenging. In June 2011, Harold transitioned his follow-up care to a local cancer clinic.
Shortly after that switch, his lab tests showed that an abnormal protein produced by his multiple myeloma cells had risen to a point where treatment was necessary. He started additional chemotherapy at his local clinic. Harold continued treatment for six months — long enough to see improvement, but short enough to limit side effects from the drugs.
In February 2014, Harold’s health began to deteriorate again.
“I had little energy and was short of breath,” Harold says. “I used to take my dog for a walk daily, but suddenly I couldn’t go more than two blocks before I’d have to sit down.”
Harold began a third round of chemo, changing medications halfway through the treatment. He continued chemotherapy for nearly two years, but his condition did not improve. His local oncologist took him off chemotherapy and told him there was nothing more he could do.
Harold decided to go back to Mayo Clinic. Dr. Solberg had retired, so Harold was referred to Sikander Ailawadhi, M.D., a hematologist-oncologist in the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center who specializes in multiple myeloma.
During a visit in February 2016, Dr. Ailawadhi recommended Harold get a blood transfusion to boost his blood levels, which were low. He also recommended Harold try immunotherapy — a treatment that involves leveraging the body’s immune system to recognize and respond to cancer as a threat.
At that time, advances were being made in immunotherapy as a treatment for multiple myeloma, and Dr. Ailawadhi felt Harold was an ideal candidate. Harold would receive the therapy once a week for eight weeks, then move to every other week, and then monthly.
With this treatment, Harold’s immune system could attack cancer cells, and his bone marrow could produce healthy cells.
“This was able to bring his cancer under control, so he had more healthy blood circulating and more energy,” Dr. Ailawadhi says. “At Harold’s age, it’s often thought that there are no options for cancer. Now we have drugs that can control the cancer effectively, improve quality of life and prolong it.”
For Harold, the treatment has helped him feel better and given him a chance to get back to doing what he loves.
“I’ve felt the best I have in years. My white blood cell count has increased fivefold, and my hemoglobin has doubled,” Harold says.
Since Harold’s cancer had returned, he had stopped flying. He shared with Dr. Ailawadhi that he desperately wanted to fly again after being grounded for more than two years. He plans to achieve that goal this year.
“Dr. Ailawadhi has been wonderful. He’s very professional and makes you feel like he has your welfare at heart. I feel I can safely put myself in his hands,” Harold says.
“I think Mayo is the very best place you can go,” he adds. “I can do pretty much whatever I want, thanks to Dr. Ailawadhi and Mayo Clinic.”