Glioblastoma multiforma: Siems reaches out through cancer diagnosis
Dann Siems, Bemidji State University biologist, wants people to understand two things about cancer:
For one thing, it's not a single disease, but many. And, if they feel out of sorts or experience some change from their normal outlook, pay attention because it might be a warning.
Siems, 52, started having headaches last summer. They would bother him in the morning, but abate if he didn't go back to bed. He also felt a sort of mental lethargy or lack of interest in things he usually enjoyed, such as gardening.
That pattern went on for about six weeks, he said, until a weekend in August when he and his wife, Lenore, spent touring in a boat around Lake of the Woods. When he came home, the headache told him he had better have the problem checked out.
As it happened, he had spent a couple of days going "25 miles in a boat with a tumor bouncing around in my head."
He said as soon as he mentioned the headaches and the fact that they intensified if he lay down, the doctors immediately suspected a brain tumor.
"That's apparently a hallmark of brain tumors," he said.
He had a CT scan on a Monday, an MRI on Tuesday and was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforma, which is almost always lethal. He had surgery to remove the tumor three days later. Siems was treated successfully with radiation and general chemotherapy in 2003 for lymphoma of the right tonsil area. The theory is that the lymphoma treatment is related to the brain tumor, which is in his right frontal brain area.
He is now among 3,000 patients enrolled in two clinical trials with the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health to try and understand the natural history of glioblastoma. Unlike lung cancer or breast cancer, glioblastoma seems to be completely random as far as ethnicity, heredity, gender or any other causal pattern. It is also tagged multiforma because it follows a range of symptoms from person to person.
He also is undergoing molecularly targeted chemotherapy with an experimental drug designed to block the tumor's blood supply. And he will undergo a second surgery next week.
"It's an odd situation to be the recipient of a benefit," Siems said of the gala and concert planned for Saturday, June 5, at Jammers. He said he hopes to be recovered enough from the surgery to attend the party.
When Siems was undergoing treatment for lymphoma, Red Wing Shoes had a sale, and he bought a pair of marked-down, top-of-the-line boots.
"I thought, 'This is stupid. Why am I buying lifetime boots?'" he said.
But he has enjoyed them and used them in turning his woods on Lake Marquette into a park.
"It really does shorten your time horizon," he said of cancer.
In 2003, their son, James, was just a toddler, and Siems wondered if he would see his child grow up.
"Now, he's in third grade and I think, 'Will I see him graduate from Schoolcraft,'" he said .
Last week, he and James and four older male friends, a sort of "council of grandfathers," took a canoe and camping trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. He also planted about 50 baby pines and cedars Thursday.
As a biologist, Siems said he finds his treatments and the studies he is involved with NCI in Bethesda, Md., are fascinating. They would be even more interesting, he said, if he weren't so close to the subject - himself.
"That's been the fun thing - I'm going out there as a participant," he said.
But he said he also feels the emotions of sadness, fear and anger a cancer diagnosis naturally engenders.
"The sadness part was immediate," he said. "That's an easier kind of catharsis because you feel that you can do something about it, even if it's only sit there and cry."
The fear, he said, isn't fear of death because he believes death is only the absence of experience. He said he also doesn't fear pain because of the good quality of palliative care. But losing control or becoming comatose is a fear, he said.
Anger, he said, is more complicated. Siems professes to be an agnostic merging on atheism.
"(The anger) almost makes me want to be a theist again so I could have a scape-God," he said.
Although a cure for cancer has been a scienfici goal for generations, he said that while some cancers can be cured, an overall cure will never happen because cancer is many diseases.
Siems said anything scientists can do to get people past thinking that cancer is a single disease is worthwhile.