June 19, 2018
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Finding stem cell donor match warden’s ‘only hope’ for fighting cancer

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff

If all goes according to plan in Gregory Sanborn’s life over the coming weeks, doctors find a matching stem cell donor for him and he undergoes an aggressive year of procedures and solitary recovery, he can return to work cancer-free.

“I let my immune system get strong, I come back to work a year from now, and I live to be old, fat and happy in my garden,” Sanborn said.

The alternative: a stem cell match is not found or a matching donation fails to produce the desired results. In that case, Sanborn knows what happens.

The cutaneous T-cell lymphoma that is ravaging his body wins.

And Sanborn dies.

“Basically, it’s my only hope,” Sanborn said of the stem-cell transplant he has been left to hope for. “If it works, I’ll be cured. And if it doesn’t, I won’t be.”

Sanborn, a 46-year-old career game warden who now serves as the deputy chief of the Maine Warden Service, remains optimistic. He is also realistic. And after several months of treatment, Sanborn has learned that his self-reliance — always one of his attributes of which he was proudest — may stand in the way of his recovery.

That’s why last Friday he was willing to say something he never thought he’d say.

“As people come up to me now, I look right at them and say, ‘You know what? At this point, I’ll take whatever help anyone is willing to give me, because I truly cannot do this alone,’” Sanborn said.

Sanborn won’t have to fight the battle alone. His brother wardens have joined forces with the University of Maine football team to hold a stem cell donor drive on Wednesday. The wardens hope to find a matching donor for Sanborn; the drive itself could benefit patients around the world, as the results will be added to a database that serves those in need of a transplant.

The drive will be held from noon to 4 p.m. in the Bangor Room of the UMaine Student Union. A donation of $100 is requested to help defray costs of the test kits. Those interested in taking part in the drive can contact Dan Carroll Jr., president of the Maine Wardens Relief Association, at dan.carroll@maine.gov. RSVPs would be helpful.

Those who can’t attend but are interested in trying to become a donor can order a test kit online at bethematch.com.

According to information at bethematch.com, screening is done through a cheek cell swab. The future donation of stem cells may or may not require a surgical procedure depending on whether a marrow donation is required. In many cases, a peripheral blood cell donation is an alternative. In that case, blood is taken through a sterile needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out specific cells. The majority of donations do not require surgery.

Sanborn said he first began noticing symptoms in March 2011, as the warden service dealt with the traumatic death of warden pilot Daryl Gordon, who perished in a plane crash.

“All of a sudden I just turned red. I mean, the color red. My skin was almost like it wasn’t mine,” Sanborn said.

After testing him for allergies and other ailments, doctors started considering cancer.

“On the last day of August, I was told I was cancer-free,” Sanborn said. “Well, at least I was cancer-free for the cancer they were testing me for.”

A Portland dermatologist pinpointed the cutaneous T-cell lymphoma in September and Sanborn began chemotherapy in November.

“The first chemo they put me in did not work. That was supposed to put it in remission, but it actually accelerated it and drove it from my blood right into my skin. It was not good,” Sanborn said. “Then they put me on a more conventional chemo which has done a pretty good job of containing it, but all it’s doing is holding it in check.”

And when he takes time off from the chemo — which is necessary, he said, because the medicine kills good cells as well as harmful ones — the tumors grow back with a vengeance.

Earlier this month, doctors started treating the larger tumors with radiation.

“But all this is doing is holding it in check until they find a donor,” Sanborn said. “Then I’m going in [for a transplant].”

First, however, he has to find a donor. His brother didn’t pan out as a match. Now he’s relying on the kindness of strangers and a worldwide database that he hopes will find a person who can help save his life.

“My brother had a 25 percent chance of being my match. He’s not. They haven’t come up with a match immediately. I just haven’t really caught a break yet,” Sanborn said. “But as I told the doctors, the only break that matters is the last one. The one that works.”

Doctors hope to perform the transplant on May 7, but Sanborn said that date may be pushed back if a donor isn’t found. And as that date approaches, members of the warden service have told him they wanted to help.

After a warden service banquet on April 5 during which Sanborn earned the Colonel’s Award from his boss, chief warden Joel Wilkinson, Sanborn took the microphone and gave a PowerPoint presentation about his illness.

“I said, ‘This is what’s going to happen to me. This is how it affects you,’” Sanborn said.

The wardens’ response came as no surprise to Sanborn.

“Of course, they wanted to do something to help me,” he said. “[Accepting that help] is not my personality. But, long about the beginning of the new year, I realized that if anybody wants to help me and send me cards and stuff, I accept it with grace, because it’s good to know that people are behind you.”

The wardens decided that cards and well-wishes weren’t enough and got permission to piggyback onto the University of Maine football donor drive. About 50 wardens are expected to show up for screening, and Sanborn, who has a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday morning, says he’ll be on hand to thank attendees in the afternoon.

Sanborn says he puts a lot of trust in his doctors, and knows the treatment he’s receiving from Boston’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute is top-notch. He has kept up his work schedule as best he can. Still, he’s well aware of the fight he’s facing.

“I told people, I’d rather go in and face a felon with a firearm that wants to shoot me because I’ve been trained against that,” Sanborn said. “I’ve never been trained on this. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

And not knowing takes a toll, even as Sanborn tries to remain upbeat.

“[If I said] it isn’t scary, I’d be lying,” Sanborn said. “Because quite frankly, I like living. I like what I do. I’m a pretty simple guy. I like hunting, fishing. I like being in the woods. I like gardening. I like taking care of my lawn. It doesn’t take much to make me happy.”

Sanborn said one of the tougher things he’s facing is this: Even if the stem cell transplant is successful, he’ll be unable to do any of the things that he likes to do for a year.

He has made peace with that realization, too.

“The doctors keep reminding me, ‘You’re trading one year for 30,’” Sanborn said. “So I keep reminding myself of that. I’ve got to give it up this year, but that means I can have 30 in the future. So that’s what I hold on to.”

Messages of support can be sent to Maj. Gregory Sanborn, Maine Warden Service, 41 State House Station, Augusta 04333-0041.

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