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Riding the wave of cancer recovery

November 02, 2017 | UC Irvine Health
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Mantle cell lymphoma survivor Michael McGregor with his daughters.

Fifty-eight-year-old Michael McGregor took on his cancer the way he attacks the pounding surf when paddling out in the ocean at San Onofre.

“When the waves are really big, you’ve got to get under them or over them, so you paddle with all your strength to get past each wave, one by one,” says the father of two daughters, lifelong surfer, and Homeland Security program manager. “I wasn’t afraid of the cancer. I just took it on one step, one day at a time.

“I had to fight with everything I had. I did not want to leave my daughters without me in their life — I wanted to see them graduate, to walk them down the aisle,” says McGregor, who is divorced with shared custody of his children.

He wasn’t afraid of the challenge. “Maybe it was good that I didn’t know any better. In retrospect, it was scary.”

Five years ago, McGregor was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer that does not respond as well as the more common non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma does, and it tends to recur quickly.

Not a run-of-the mill lymphoma

Family members schooled in healthcare — his mother is a registered nurse, his sister is a psychologist, and her husband is a psychiatrist — recognized that McGregor’s cancer was not a run-of-the-mill lymphoma. They encouraged him to seek the expertise of specialists at a comprehensive cancer center.

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When he met Dr. Edward Nelson, a UC Irvine Health hematology-oncologist and chief of the Division of Hematology-Oncology, McGregor felt an immediate connection, sensing that he was both compassionate and brilliant.

“When we walked out, I said, ‘That’s the man with the plan,’” McGregor says. “I credit him with saving my life.”

No consensus on treatment

“At that time, there was no consensus on which regimen would provide him the best chance of having long-term survival,” Nelson says. “We based our plan on our experience and knowledge of the literature and the field. I would argue that we chose correctly for him.”

The treatment plan involved an autologous stem cell transplant (in which patients receive their own stem cells, harvested in a previous procedure).

Before the transplant, McGregor went through six cycles of chemotherapy at the UC Irvine Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. The autologous stem cell transplant was performed by Nelson’s colleagues at City of Hope.

The same condition today would be treated with a BTK inhibitor, a treatment advance made in the past couple of years, developed from the work of basic scientists over the previous 20 or 30 years, Nelson says. Stem cell replacement is now reserved for use if the drug fails.

Stem cell transplant not for the faint of heart

michael mcgregor surfingStem cell transplant is a challenging treatment that is not for the faint of heart. McGregor tackled each step with determination.

He worked hard to stay connected to his daughters Serra, now 17, and Darby, now 13, even eating pizza with them while watching Fourth of July fireworks from his seventh-floor hospital room.

His sister, Michelle Grayden, never left his side, and Nelson kept the patient’s spirit buoyed.

“I just kept saying, ‘We’ll see,’ each time he’d ask when he would be able to get back to surfing,” Nelson says. “Surfing, his daughters and family were big motivators for him.”

McGregor was released from the hospital in October 2012 and was back in the water surfing by the following March.

Nelson talks with obvious affection about this stereotypically “bleached blonde, sun-tanned, blue-eyed surfer dude” who incongruously works in a variety of facilities along the Mexican border and sometimes flies along with border agents in a Black Hawk helicopter for the Department of Homeland Security.

Cancer-free at five-year stem cell birthday

“He’s out there with the young pups at San Onofre,” says Nelson. “He’s sent me photos of himself paddling for a wave along with a shark and another one where his board is vertical and he’s horizontal about three feet above the wave — he was definitely going to get wet.”

As of his five-year “stem cell birthday” in October, McGregor is 100 percent cancer-free and living the surfing lifestyle to its fullest.

“Today is all I have. The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift, that’s why they call it the present,” he says, adding with a joke: “I think that’s from ‘Kung Fu Panda.’ ”

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