Bruce Jackson

These days, Bruce Jackson is back to doing what he loves best – making a joyful noise. It’s hard to believe that less than a year ago, his life had gone wildly out of tune.

A 56 year old resident of the Twin Cities area, Bruce has been involved in music for more than 40 years. He’s brightened the local scene and traveled the world, sharing the stage with A-list musicians like Tracy Chapman. He passes on his knowledge and love of music through teaching piano, mandolin and guitar, and keeps things in harmony by tuning and repairing pianos.

Although his interests are chiefly musical, Bruce is no stranger to physical exertion. He’d held labor positions in the past, repaired his cars himself, and sometimes had to be his own “roadie”. So last fall, when he noticed bright blood in his urine after muscling a Hammond organ around, he wasn’t too alarmed. He’d had a similar episode a year prior. This time, however, his girlfriend urged him to pursue it further to put her mind at ease. So he saw his physician, who ordered a CAT scan “just to make sure”.

The CAT scan was startling. Bruce’s bladder wall showed precancerous lesions. In January, he underwent surgery, with assurances that everything, having been caught early, would turn out fine. The surgery was indeed successful, and the issue seemed to be resolving without complication until in a follow-up scan, his urologist noticed “something funny”. The doctor didn’t seem particularly alarmed, but referred Bruce to an oncologist, again “just to be on the safe side”. The oncology work-up revealed tiny, mysterious “seeding” sprinkled throughout his abdomen, along with small pockets of fluid. Incredibly, it looked almost like ovarian cancer.

The mystery was solved by a biopsy. The pathology results were so unexpected, the local lab sent the samples to the Mayo Clinic for confirmation. On June 12, Bruce’s oncologist gave him the verdict -- Mayo had confirmed the diagnosis: peritoneal mesothelioma, epithelioid type.

The oncologist freely admitted he didn’t know anything about mesothelioma other than it was deadly. He advised Bruce to “Google it”. Like most new meso patients, Bruce was startled that most of what he read stressed the lethal nature of the disease and gave a grim prognosis of only months. All of a sudden, the “something funny” was anything but – Bruce had a cancer that was considered terminal, and his health insurance was directing him to providers with no experience in treating it. Even the Mayo Clinic, when he called for a recommendation, had told him only that they would “get back to him”.

But in what he terms a “big time blessed coincidence,” Bruce’s Internet searching led him to the Meso Foundation website. Immediately, Mary Hesdorffer set to work to provide Bruce with options and resources. She located a clinical trial for which he was eligible at the NIH, alleviating concerns for the financial burdens of going out of network for care. Through the Foundation’s Mary and Bob Cosentino Travel Grant Program, she arranged the travel funds he would need to get to the NIH for his consultation with Dr. James Pingpank. She also arranged a fi nancial aid grant so that Bruce and Beth could attend the Foundation’s annual Symposium, beginning on his birthday, June 26.

Bruce says he got the “best birthday present ever” when he and Beth, his partner in life and music, attended the 2008 International Mesothelioma Symposium. There, Bruce and Beth were enveloped in an atmosphere of information and support. Community members shared treatment tips and stories of hope, easing some of the mounting anxiety Bruce and Beth were feeling about his diagnosis. He also had an opportunity to sit with Dr. Pingpank at lunch during the Symposium, discussing the disease and the treatment options, and addressing his questions and concerns. As Bruce notes, “How often do you get to chat one-on-one like that with the doctor who’s going to save your life? It was amazing!”

Bruce didn’t have long to wait. In July, he traveled to the NIH for his pre-surgical workup. The research trial involved tagging the tumor tissue with gold particles injected intravenously. The surgery itself was conducted August 20th. Beth was at his side, anxiously awaiting the post-surgical fi ndings, and posting updates to the online forum to keep Bruce’s newfound friends in the meso community apprised of his status.

Depending on the findings, Bruce’s operation was anticipated to take as long as 12 hours. When, Dr. Pingpank came out after only about a quarter of that time, Beth worried that something had gone awry. She need not have – Bruce’s luck was still holding firm! Dr. Pingpank had found that the meso was totally contained in the omentum, and had not spread to any vital organs. Not only did that explain Bruce’s lack of more pronounced initial symptoms, it meant that just the omentum needed to be removed, sparing the need for a wider resection. Heated intracavity chemotherapy solution was administered to Bruce’s belly, and it was all over. Bruce was sent on to post-anesthesia recovery, and then to his hospital room where Beth was waiting with a hug and a huge sigh of relief.

The NIH protocol and Bruce’s individual staging meant he needed only one additional dose of intraperitoneal chemotherapy through the abdominal catheter installed during surgery. He experienced little post-operative discomfort, healing rapidly and well, and was ready for discharge in eight days. Over Labor Day weekend, he came back home with Beth, still marveling at all that had taken place in the few months since they had first heard that alien and awful word “mesothelioma”. It seemed almost unreal that in that time, they had gone from no hope at all to a future bright with promise. Cautiously optimistic, they waited for Bruce’s follow-up CAT scan and visit with Dr. Pingpank.

On October 10, the couple got the answer they had been hoping and praying for: the post-operative CAT scan was clear of any sign of disease! Bruce was discharged to follow up with his local oncologist, and the fi rst thing he did was provide that oncologist with informational brochures from the Meso Foundation. Bruce and Beth wanted to help ensure that no future patients would be told to blindly Google a diagnosis of mesothelioma, or wrongly informed that such a diagnosis meant certain death.

When he talks about his experience, Bruce Jackson’s voice is full of wonder at the streak of luck that saw him through. He credits a number of factors in addition to luck: Beth’s love and concern, the power of prayer, and listening to the inner voice that told him not to simply shrug off his vague symptoms. Chiefly though, he credits the Meso Foundation for being there with the right information at the right time. “They were a godsend,” he says, “And I’m the poster child for the power of early intervention with a specialist who knows this cancer and what to do for it.”

Bruce and Beth, known to the mesothelioma community as the “Two B’s in a pod”, are now working on a song about their mesothelioma experience. They want to share with others what they know firsthand: with meso, knowledge is power when it comes to making informed decisions about treatment, and hope is a sweet, sweet song for sore hearts and spirits to hear!

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