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From patient to resource: Survivor stresses 'the three E's'

Network - Spring 2013

By Joey Tran

Bob Coomes loves his job.

A 61-year-old general manager at AT&T, Coomes, of Atlanta, has always enjoyed planning operations and training and coaching staff and associates.

But, 14 years ago, a kidney cancer diagnosis threatened to end his career and his life.

“At 47, I was too young to plan my own funeral,” Coomes jokes.

It started with a sharp pain in his left rib cage. He wasn’t too concerned at first, but when the pain worsened over the next few days, his wife convinced him to see his doctor.

“I’d never been seriously ill in my life,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

An X-ray revealed a large tumor in his rib cage. A subsequent CT scan revealed the culprit in his left kidney. The grim diagnosis: stage 4 renal cell carcinoma.

With limited options, his local oncologist indicated surgery was necessary and referred him to MD Anderson.

The treatment process

Coomes’ wife, friends and family were very supportive during his treatment. He also connected with — and was comforted by — a fellow patient slightly ahead of him in treatment.

Soon, Coomes realized he wasn’t alone and got over the “Why me?” syndrome. “I just couldn’t give up on myself,” he says. “Not only for me, but also for all the people who’d supported me so much.”

At MD Anderson, a clinical trial was offered, in which part of the tumor was removed and sent to a biotech company for creation of a vaccine to fight the remaining cancer systemically.

When the vaccine was not successful, he began taking a combination of Interleukin-2 and Interferon alpha (the only approved drugs at the time for metastatic renal cancer, with a 7% success rate). After nine months, his remaining tumors started shrinking.

After another nine months, he received his latest scan news: no visible evidence of disease. “It was miraculous,” Coomes says. “And short-lived.”

A year later, his cancer returned. Since then, he’s been on a number of new treatments approved over the last six years for his disease. These have held things in check, but each treatment has caused challenging side effects.

“It’s part of living a new normal, and every day represents a blessing,” Coomes says.

Making a difference

He joined the Anderson Network to help other cancer patients and their loved ones make the transition from diagnosis to survivorship.

When speaking with fellow patients, Coomes stresses “the three E’s.”

“They need to be empowered, educated and engaged,” he says. “They should build a large support network and educate themselves as much as they can.”

Coomes is grateful for how far he’s come — from the startling diagnosis of kidney cancer in 1999 to sharing his story, voice and journey with others who need help.

“It’s a calling,” he says, “It’s what I need to do. I want to give hope and be a resource for other patients.”

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center