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 in the upper part of the nasal cavity, and sometimes on the cribriform plate, a bone deep in the skull between the eyes that separates the nasal passage from the brain. It originates in the nerves that affect the sense of smell.
The cancer is so rare that Witt’s ear, nose and throat doctor in San Diego immediately referred him to MD Anderson, where a team of doctors specialize in treating rare tumors like Witt’s. During 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.
Heading to Houston
Witt learned of his diagnosis in 2013, just three months after earning a doctorate degree in pharmacy and two months after getting married. The diagnosis came as a shock.
“I had never heard of MD Anderson, but we were in Houston within days,” says Witt. “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.”
His trip to Houston in 2013 proved successful. During his first appointment, Witt met with head and neck surgeon Ehab Hanna, M.D., to discuss his treatment plan. Following two surgeries, his cancer went into remission.
When the cancer returned in early 2015, Witt again underwent four surgeries and six weeks of daily proton radiation therapy, which helped put the cancer in remission again. But his second remission was sadly overshadowed by the Witts’ loss of twin boys in a premature delivery.
By summer 2015, Witt was back in San Diego where he began his career as pharmacist at Scripps Mercy Hospital. In August 2016, the Witts became parents to a healthy baby girl, Briley, now 3 years old. 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, Witt learned during a routine MRI follow up at MD Anderson that his cancer had returned. This time, the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in his neck. That April, he began treatment that included six weeks of high-dose proton therapy.
He remained in Houston through the summer and on into September for speech therapy and to prepare for another surgery. But just two weeks before his surgery date, the apartment where Witt was staying with his wife and daughter flooded during Hurricane Harvey. After finding temporary housing, he was able to undergo surgery on Sept. 15.
Cause for celebration
Since then, Witt has shown no evidence of disease. He travels to MD Anderson every four months for check-ups. So far, all the news has been good. And last summer, his wife gave birth to their second 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 living in the moment. A favorite coffee cup in their kitchen bears a slogan that speaks to one way they’re able to remain positive: “Life is not waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”