The 29th time Vincent "Dale" Sittig checked in to MD Anderson's P12 nursing unit for treatment in a Phase I clinical trial, his nurses hatched a scheme.
"We said, 'Next time will be 30 treatments,'" says Brandi Barosh, clinical nurse on the unit. "We should throw you a party."
"He said, 'Aww, you don't have to do that.'
"But we kept at him, asking what his favorite foods are," Barosh recalls. "Eventually, we got it out of him.
"He's a celebrity on our unit. Everybody knows and loves him," she explains. "We decided to go all out."
Like all the other patients on P12, Sittig, 51, has metastatic cancer.
The unit is "home base" for the Clinical Center for Targeted Therapy, which offers experimental Phase I therapies that may eventually represent advances in cancer research and treatment.
Diagnosed in 2006 with neuroendocrine carcinoma, Sittig travels to MD Anderson from Ville Platte, La., every 28 days for testing and treatment. Neuroendocrine carcinomas form in the hormone-producing cells of the body's neuroendocrine system, which is composed of cells that are a cross between traditional endocrine cells and nerve cells.
Ups and downs over six years
After standard therapy failed in 2008, Sittig entered a Phase II clinical trial under James Yao, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology.
When his disease progressed again, he entered the Phase I trial under David Hong, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Investigational Cancer Therapeutics.
The trial involves targeting chemotherapy directly to the affected side of the liver in a process called hepatic arterial infusion, followed by standard IV chemotherapy. The entire process takes four to five days.
So, every four weeks, Sittig returns to MD Anderson for laboratory tests, then visits the Department of Interventional Radiology to have a catheter inserted.
Then he comes up to P12 for the infusion. He must stay very still for four hours during the process -- and for six hours afterward.
Once the infusion is complete, the catheter must be removed by the nursing staff.
It's a delicate process requiring patience and technical skill, and a bonding experience for patients and nurses, Borash says.
'Going all out' for a favorite patient is a team effort
Borash worked with Victoria Brosset, administrative assistant for the unit, and Karen Bolton, another clinical nurse on P12, to plan the celebration.
They chose a menu, designed and ordered New Orleans Saints-themed "Team P12" T-shirts with "Dale" on the back, and assigned volunteers to bring a mouthwatering assortment of Sittig's favorite foods.
D-Day was Oct. 13. Sittig and his mother, who accompanies him to every treatment, were awakened at 6:00 a.m. by a large contingent of P12 staff, who streamed into his small room wearing their T-shirts.
Sittig's wife, Maria, and mother-in-law -- also wearing their T-shirts -- arrived a few hours later for a surprise visit.
Lunch was served to all patients, families, physicians and staff on P12. Sittig had a ball signing T-shirts for many staff members.
Sittig has developed a routine during his treatments, Barosh says.
"As soon as his vitals are stable and he can get up after the infusion, he makes the rounds of the other rooms on the unit. He talks to every nurse, every patient.
"If he sees that someone (even a family member) is upset, he'll pull them aside and talk to them, encourage them.
"He has the biggest heart. He makes everyone feel better. He tells other patients, 'It's not if you get better, it's when.'"
For his part, Sittig is grateful for his strong support system of family, friends, coworkers and care team.
"I've been given six to nine months to live -- twice," he says. "You've got to live life, and thank God you have each day."