Olfactory neuroblastoma survivor finds hope at MD Anderson
Robby Witt knows about hope. In the last six years, he has gone through more highs and lows than most people experience in a lifetime. The 38-year-old former high school quarterback has faced olfactory neuroblastoma three times. This extremely rare cancer occurs on the roof of the nasal cavity and sometimes the cribriform plate, a bone between the eyes located deep in the skull that separates the nasal passage from the brain. It’s a type of skull base tumor.
Robby’s cancer is so rare that his ear, nose and throat doctor in San Diego immediately referred him to MD Anderson, where his physician advised him he would receive care by specialists who see more of these rare skull base tumors. Over the last decade, MD Anderson has treated almost 150 patients with olfactory neuroblastoma. That’s a significant number given that only 1,000 cases have been diagnosed since 1924, when it was first identified.
For Robby, who had only recently married and received his Doctorate of Pharmacy, the diagnosis came as a shock.
“I had never heard of MD Anderson, but we were in Houston within days,” says Robby. “I like to meet things head on, so I read as much as I could about this cancer. I knew that getting to a cancer center where they were more familiar with olfactory neuroblastoma was my best choice.”
A clear path for olfactory neuroblastoma treatment
Olfactory neuroblastoma and other rare cancers can often baffle physicians not familiar with them and lead patients through a journey that may include years of referrals, treatment and follow-up care. That hasn’t been the case for Robby, thankfully.
His trip to Houston in 2013 proved successful. During his first appointment at MD Anderson, Robby met with head and neck surgeon and skull base tumor specialist Ehab Hanna, M.D., to discuss his treatment plan. Following two surgeries, his cancer went into remission.
When the cancer returned in early 2015, Robby again underwent surgery, including an ethmoidectomy, sphenoidotomy, an endoscopic skull base surgery and a nasoseptal flap reconstruction. Six weeks later, he underwent proton therapy, which helped put the cancer in remission again. But Robby’s second remission was sadly overshadowed by the Witts’ loss of twin boys in an early delivery.
Another olfactory neuroblastoma recurrence
In August 2016, the Witts became parents to a healthy baby girl, Briley, who is now almost three. For six months after her birth, the family seemed to at last be getting past the tragedies that had befallen them.
But in March 2017, Robby learned the cancer had returned during a routine MRI at MD Anderson. This time, the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in his neck. That April, Robby began treatment, including six weeks of intensity-modulated proton therapy.
He remained in Houston through the summer and on into September for speech therapy and to prepare for another surgery -- a surgical nasal endoscopy. But just two weeks before surgery, the apartment where he was staying flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Thanks to his dedicated care team, he was still able to prepare for his Sept. 15, 2017 surgery.
More reasons to celebrate
Since that last surgery, Robby has shown no evidence of disease. He still travels to Houston every four months for check-ups, but so far all of the news he’s gotten has been good. And last summer, his wife gave birth to another daughter, Skylar.
Through both their setbacks and these more-recent reasons to celebrate, the Witts have maintained a remarkable outlook that they credit to their faith and their commitment to live in the moment. A favorite coffee cup bears a slogan that speaks to one way they are able to remain positive: “Life is not waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”