Cured: The John Cleland Story

Pulled back from the brink of death, this Indiana man was cured.

KATHY LATOUR
PUBLISHED: APRIL 22, 2009
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The moment: September 1974. John Cleland was dying. He had failed three grueling chemotherapy regimens, his weight had dropped to 106 pounds, and the cancer that began in his right testicle had now spread to his lungs.

The doctor delivering the bad news, Lawrence Einhorn, MD, a medical oncologist at Indiana University Medical School, had been seeing the 23-year-old Cleland since his initial diagnosis a year earlier in November 1973.

They sat in Dr. Einhorn's office. Neither spoke.

"I think he felt sorry for me," says Cleland today. "Finally, he said, 'Well, there is one other thing we can try.'"

Three weeks after his first injection of the then experimental drug Platinol® (cisplatin), Cleland was back at the hospital for his second treatment. From the vantage point in his hospital bed, he recalls sensing rather than actually seeing that something was happening in the hall where Dr. Einhorn and oncology nurse Becky Bond were viewing the new scans of his lungs. When Dr. Einhorn walked into his room he was smiling; Cleland knew something was up.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘John, I think you are going to make it.’”

The scans were clear. They were so remarkably different from Cleland’s previous scans that the radiologist was concerned he had confused Cleland’s films with another patient. He hadn’t. The tumors in Cleland’s lungs were gone, melted away.

The fortuitous meeting of patient, doctor and drug heralded a moment that thousands of cancer patients dream of—cure. But that it almost didn’t happen underlines the often serendipitous discoveries of cancer treatments.

In the early ’70s Dr. Einhorn found himself at a crossroads. Since beginning medical school his path had been clear—become a cardiologist and go into practice with his father in Dayton, Ohio. But his father had become ill and retired, leaving the son open to other possibilities.

“We were allowed to take an elective during the last two months of internship and I took hematology oncology to see what it was like.”

What Dr. Einhorn found was a field that was wide open to discovery and where the patients had significant symptoms and illness. After the first round he decided to do a second, being drawn into a specialty he found was “more complicated and more human.”

“Everyone faces illness, but I was struck by what cancer patients go through compared to other patients,” says Dr. Einhorn, who was now enamored by the challenges and faces of cancer.

Dr. Einhorn was also drawn to the idea of research and teaching. A two-year stint in the military gave him time to confirm his sense that oncology was a place where he could make a difference.

Oncology was still a new field in the early ’70s and to get additional training after one year at IU Medical Center, Dr. Einhorn had four options: the National Cancer Institute in Washington, D.C.; M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City; or Roswell Park Cancer Institute in New York. He chose Texas, returning to Indiana in 1973 where he began working with John Donohue, MD, a surgeon who was exploring treatments for testicular cancer.

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