NORWALK, Connecticut, November 1, 2018
— If you are having a bad day, you should talk to Greg Stillwagon. He epitomizes the power of positive thinking and can turn any frown into a smile. His incredibly optimistic attitude has helped him to overcome decades of health hardships. Most recently, he is managing stage IV kidney cancer, with the help of Richard Frank, MD, medical oncologist at Norwalk Hospital and a consultant in the gastrointestinal oncology service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK).
Advanced Stage Kidney Cancer Diagnosis
In June 2016, Mr. Stillwagon noticed his legs had started to swell. He became even more concerned when the swelling moved up his body and into his chest. After seeking care from his primary care physician, Mr. Stillwagon learned that the source of the swelling was high-grade stage III metastatic kidney cancer. Higher-grade cancer cells tend to grow more quickly and are more likely to spread. The cancer, which had originated in Mr. Stillwagon’s left kidney, had already metastasized to the lymph nodes in his abdomen.
Mr. Stillwagon, a gregarious 63-year old, has had the same primary care physician for 30 years. He trusts him. When his primary care physician referred him to MSK in New York City, New York he went there straightaway.
In September 2016, Mr. Stillwagon had his left kidney removed as well as several lymph nodes from his abdomen. His surgeon also removed part of his spleen and part of his pancreas. He spent the entire month of October 2016 as an inpatient at MSK in New York City about two hours from his home in Stratford, Connecticut.
Mr. Stillwagon’s kidney cancer went into remission, but only briefly. Unfortunately the cancer came back, even more aggressively the second time. In January 2017, Mr. Stillwagon was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer.
MSK Physicians at Norwalk Hospital
When Mr. Stillwagon was an inpatient at MSK in New York City, he had found it stressful to be so far away from his wife. Mrs. Stillwagon had stayed in Stratford to care for their great-niece, who was 13 years old at the time. While Mr. Stillwagon was thankful for the care he received at MSK in New York City, he knew it would be too tiring for him to travel the four hours round-trip for his treatments.
Thankfully, Mr. Stillwagon was able to get the treatment he needed at MSK Westchester in West Harrison, New York. This cut his commute in half, to about two hours round-trip. On January 25, 2017, at the direction of his MSK Westchester doctor, Mr. Stillwagon started to take an oral chemotherapy to treat the cancer.
From January to November 2017, Mr. Stillwagon was traveling to MSK Westchester every three weeks for a checkup with his doctor. During his commute, he started to see billboards about MSK physicians at Norwalk Hospital. He also started to see television commercials.
“I thought ‘Now, all of a sudden, MSK is closer!’” recounted Mr. Stillwagon. Norwalk Hospital is about 20 minutes from his home. “I was excited about the possibility of getting my treatment closer to my home. My MSK Westchester doctor and I discussed my options, and he recommended that I continue my treatment at Norwalk Hospital,” said Mr. Stillwagon.
Because of the aggressive nature of Mr. Stillwagon’s disease, the oral chemotherapy was not effectively treating the cancer. His MSK Westchester doctor recommended he start intravenous immunotherapy, which is delivered directly into the vein. Immunotherapy is a relatively new type of cancer treatment that boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer.
In November 2017, Mr. Stillwagon started receiving his cancer care from Dr. Frank at Norwalk Hospital. He had his first infusion immunotherapy at Norwalk Hospital on November 21, 2017.
“I felt confident that I was getting the best care at Norwalk Hospital, especially because its cancer care program has a unique relationship with MSK,” said Mr. Stillwagon.
In November 2017, in a first-of-its-kind cancer care collaboration, MSK medical and radiation oncologists and care practices integrated with the existing cancer program at the C. Anthony and Jean Whittingham Cancer Center at Norwalk Hospital. The aim of the program is to accelerate access to the newest cancer treatment options in the comfort of Fairfield County residents’ local community setting.
“MSK physicians at Norwalk Hospital provides residents of Fairfield County the best of both worlds — the expertise of MSK in their own community. Norwalk Hospital’s medical and radiation oncologists have also joined MSK’s medical staff. This has been a great comfort to our patients,” said Dr. Frank.
Continuing to Fight
Mr. Stillwagon sees Dr. Frank every two weeks at the Norwalk Hospital Whittingham Cancer Center for infusion immunotherapy. Currently, the treatment is helping to stop the cancerous tumors from growing. While there is currently no known cure for his cancer, Mr. Stillwagon is thankful that the disease is not progressing.
“Besides just treating the cancer, Dr. Frank gave me options to reduce the risk of developing other health issues as a side effect of the cancer treatment. He also gave me hope by telling me that there are advances in care on the horizon, and that he would make them available to me,” said Mr. Stillwagon. “Dr. Frank is the man! He has given me the best care, and the entire cancer care team at Norwalk Hospital is incredible. They are professional, expedient, kind, and helpful — how outstanding is that?” he said.
“Mr. Stillwagon is fighting a tough cancer, but despite that, he is doing remarkably well. This is in part due to the advanced treatment options we can offer patients like Mr. Stillwagon at Norwalk Hospital. He is also doing well because of his attitude. Mr. Stillwagon is the toughest guy I know. He’s indestructible!” said Dr. Frank.
“I know I’m in a pickle, but it could be so much worse without Norwalk Hospital. With the help of Dr. Frank and Norwalk Hospital, I’m going to do the best I can to stay here as long as I can,” said Mr. Stillwagon.
To learn more about MSK physicians at Norwalk Hospital and our cancer care program, please visit MSKatNorwalk.org.