PITTSFIELD, Maine — It was supposed to be a routine check-up, but Dr. Howard Margolskee knew something wasn’t right.
It had been about five years since Margolskee was diagnosed with an insidious form of leukemia and about five months since he underwent a stem-cell transplant that he knew would either save his life or become his last hoorah before dying.
A day before a check-up at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in July of 2006, Margolskee did something he never thought he’d do.
“I asked them to admit me to the hospital,” he said. “I just didn’t feel good. Within 24 hours I was on a ventilator and could barely blink. I couldn’t communicate. I couldn’t speak.”
Margolskee’s family gathered to say goodbye. They knew that chronic lymphocytic leukemia leads to death for most people within five to seven years and that Howard was in the late stages of that time frame.
“I thought he was going to die,” said Howard’s Wife, Anna Margolskee. “I’ve thought that so many times during this that I developed post-traumatic stress disorder.”
But Howard Margolskee, an internal medicine doctor who is a fixture in Central Maine’s medical community, didn’t die. At 62 years old he is now 10 years past his diagnosis and counts himself among the narrow sliver of the population who has beaten cancer instead of succumbing to it.
“It’s better here on this side of the dirt,” he told the Bangor Daily News Saturday during a break from building a deck on his home in Pittsfield. “I feel great.”
Howard’s ordeal began as such things often do, with a routine physical.
“As a physician I’d been taking care of everyone else, but I didn’t do a good job of taking care of myself,” he said. “My wife finally convinced me to have a physical.”
Blood tests bore the ominous news and a second round of tests confirmed it, but Howard was still feeling fine. Four years passed that way, though he and his family’s life had already changed.
“We started working through our bucket list, quite frankly,” said Anna. “We tried to decide what was really important in our lives.”
After an unsuccessful regimen of chemotherapy, Howard received a stem-cell transplant in February 2006. With a weakened immune system, he became virtually paralyzed a few months later, which took the rest of the year to recover from. He returned home just before Christmas and despite his weakened condition he attended a wedding in the Bahamas in early 2007.
“That really freaked out my doctor, but I told him I’m going to live my life the way I need to live my life,” said Howard. Quite literally, he was living every day like it was his last.
In the summer of 2007, his condition deteriorated again and he began having seizures. Testing revealed abscesses in his brain, lungs, spine and liver. Again, it looked like the end was near. Howard said he doesn’t remember much about that hospitalization.
“Every once in a while there were moments of lucidity,” he said. “I’d see my family there and I thought it was wonderful for my family to come to see me. Little did I know they were coming to say goodbye.”
Howard’s weight dropped to 115 pounds, but again he beat the odds. In August 2008 he celebrated his 60th birthday with a party at the family camp on Great Moose Lake in Athens. More than 60 family and friends turned out.
“I never thought we would see that day,” said Anna. “I felt that we’d been really lucky.”
Sarah, one of the couple’s three children, agreed.
“We felt like we could breath again,” she said.
Margolskee hadn’t worked since 2005 and had gone on disability.
“I figured I’d never work again,” he said. “But then by the end of 2008 I was bored. My doctor told me I was crazy to go back to work. It was largely unheard of.”
Margolskee had sold Pittsfield Health Care Center, the practice he’d built on Somerset Avenue, years before. He took a job in Auburn, but before long decided the commute was too long and the stress too much. Again, luck was on his side. In October 2009 Margolskee became medical director for outpatient clinics at Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield. He now also serves as the hospital’s chief of staff.
“It’s been terrific,” he said. “I feel great.”
Howard’s health is so good that he, Anna and Sarah completed a one-day, 100-mile bicycle trip around Lake Tahoe earlier this month as part of a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. For Howard, who’d dreamed of taking that trip for two years, it marked a turning point and a new beginning.
“I never thought I’d walk again, let alone bike 100 miles,” he said.
Asked how cancer changed him, Margolskee said it put his family back at top priority where it should be.
“The support of my family is the reason I’m here,” he said. “Their love, their comfort and their belief in me is huge. I firmly believe that there’s very little at this point that I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it.”
To learn more about the Tahoe fundraiser or the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, or to make a donation, visit the website www.teamintraining.org/ma/.