Immune to Cancer: The CRI Blog



Donald (Dee) Rowe’s Immunotherapy Story

Melanoma |  Diagnosed 2005

Every day is a bonus.

Donald (Dee)’s Story

Donald (Dee) Rowe loves his job so much that he often says he’s never worked a day in his life. As a longtime coach and athletic director for UConn, sports are his passion, and he is grateful to still be able to do what he loves at age 85. He feels especially lucky given that 10 years ago he was treated for an aggressive melanoma that had spread throughout his body.

After having surgery to remove a part of his liver, as well as his spleen, gallbladder, and adrenal gland, Dee decided to enroll in a phase 3 clinical trial of an immunotherapy called Oncophage, developed by Pramod Srivastava, MD, PhD, Director of the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and a member of the Cancer Research Institute Scientific Advisory Council.

Oncophage is a personalized cancer vaccine made from molecules, called heat shock proteins, isolated from a patient’s own tumor. Heat shock proteins are good carriers of antigens that can stimulate an immune response. Several clinical trials of the vaccine have been conducted in a variety of cancer types, including melanoma, kidney cancer, and glioma (a type of brain cancer), and in 2008 the vaccine was approved for use in Russia, making it the first cancer vaccine approved anywhere in the world.

We spoke with Dee about why he is so grateful to his doctors and what making a difference in the world means to him.

Questions and Answers

How and when did you first learn you had cancer?

It was about 10 years ago, late fall, and I got this terrible pain in my stomach. I went home and was out walking and then I went home and the pain got worse and I was sweating. My wife called 911 and they sent an ambulance and two attendants. They rushed me to the hospital and did all kinds of research and tests. At about 6:00 am, a doctor came in and told me that I had cancer. They determined that the cancer was a tumor on my liver. Right away, my wife called Peter Deckers, MD, who is a renowned surgeon, and an oncologist, who came from my hometown of Worcester. He was the Dean of the University of Connecticut Health Center. 

How did you learn about immunotherapy and why did you decide to do it?

The interesting thing here is that a doctor at UConn named Pramod Srivastava developed what they call heat shock protein vaccine and, instead of giving me radiation or instead of giving me chemo, I had maybe 20‑some shots of this. It’s a vaccine made from my tumor.
And from that point on, they gave me shots of this heat shock protein vaccine, and I recovered. It was a number of months, but I did recover well enough to be able to go to some games. I could fly and I would go to games at the tail end of the season. I felt like I was a millionaire.

How did immunotherapy compare to other treatments you may have received, if any?

I’ve had four cancer surgeries. The worst one was they took a foot and a half of my small intestine. The last one was five or six years ago, and the one before that was maybe another eight years before that. They removed a tumor from my liver the size of a baseball. And then they took out the spleen, gallbladder, and adrenal gland. There was some thought that I might not get through that. But thankfully, I did.

But no chemo, no radiation.

Are there things that surprise you about the cancer experience?

I like to tell people that cancer is not the end of the world. Sadly, it can be for some, but there are so many people that work every day on research to help develop a cure. That’s the main thing I want to convey—to give other people courage that you can get through it. Not everybody does, but that’s why people need to contribute dollars to help all the people who are doing research to save lives. It’s really making a difference. I always say the real measure of a person’s life is that they can make a difference. That’s pretty special. 

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