Promoting Research and Better Access to Treatment
Longtime Cancer Survivor, Advocate & Activist Promotes Research and Better Access to Treatment
August 15th, 2019 | Rob Kelly
Paul Westrick was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the blood, when he was 45. At the time, the median life expectancy for people with this diagnosis was three years. That was 22 years ago.
Thanks to treatment advances, sustained response to therapies and perseverance, Westrick is able to lead an active and engaged life.
He retired six years ago after a career in health system executive management and now spends his time traveling, bicycling, enjoying the company of friends and family and volunteering for several cancer organizations. He serves on the Trustee Development Committee of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society–Wisconsin and as an ambassador with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. He is a member of the Wisconsin Cancer Council, advocates for policy and system changes to improve patient access to cancer-related care, is a speaker at myeloma conferences and serves as a mentor to newly diagnosed myeloma patients.
“A few years into retirement I realized that I had traded my full-time, paying job and for a bunch of part-time, non-paying jobs,” Westrick says. “I volunteer because it keeps me busy, and I’ve got skills that align with the needs of these organizations. It brings meaning to my life. The longer I can do that, the better.”
Westrick began his career in 1974 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh He took a job as a project specialist at the UW Clinical Cancer Center in the lab of Dr. William Wolberg, who sparked his interest in health care policy and systems. It was there that he also met his future wife, Linda, who worked in an adjacent lab.
He completed a UW–Madison master’s degree in health service administration that led to a 33-year career with St. Mary’s Hospital, Meriter Hospital (both in Madison) and Columbia St. Mary’s in Milwaukee.
Westrick learned he had multiple myeloma after a blood test for a life insurance policy showed abnormal levels of a protein associated with the disease. Since he didn’t have any symptoms, his doctor advised the standard of care at the time, a watch-and-wait strategy and treat only when the disease progressed. He didn’t share his diagnosis with anyone but his wife, his best friend and his boss in order to spare his children, then 8 and 10, the worry and confusion of knowing their father had a life-threatening illness but wasn’t being treated for it.
He was fortunate to go six years after diagnosis before requiring treatment, which spared him the toxic effects of chemotherapy and enabled him to continue his active life uninterrupted. During that time, a new therapy was in development—autologous stem cell transplant, a procedure in which blood-forming stem cells are removed, stored and later infused back into the patient. When the cancer progressed, he took part in a 2003 Phase 3 clinical trial of this treatment and responded well. Since then he has gone through alternating periods of remission and relapse. Precision medicines have managed the disease without the acute side effects from the chemotherapies that were used to treat the disease in the past.
Westrick participated in a clinical trial of one of these targeted therapies in 2012—a proteasome inhibitor and had a “remarkable response.” He has also benefitted from another new class of drugs, monoclonal antibodies, in 2018. “The pace of research advances is just unbelievable,” he says.
Unlike many patients with multiple myeloma, his treatments continue to be effective over time. “Most patients with multiple myeloma will respond to therapy initially. When that treatment stops working they need to try something else. For a lot of patients, they run out of options. They become resistant to even the newest treatments and succumb to the disease.
“For whatever reason, the genetic mutations of my disease aren’t changing, so I’m still responding well to proven treatments. However, I’m talking with my doctor [Dr. Natalie Callander, a UW Carbone Cancer Center bone marrow transplant physician who specializes in treating multiple myeloma] about other options on the next relapse. I’m at the point where I’m ready to take a risk on something new to see if it gives me a longer remission, so I can go two or three years without getting any kind of treatment.”
By participating in clinical trials, Westrick is helping to advance cancer research that could benefit future patients. He also hopes his policy advocacy and fundraising can help improve patients’ lives. One fundraiser he’s particularly passionate about is The Ride, a bicycle benefit for cancer research at the University of Wisconsin. This event gives him the opportunity to engage in a sport he loves while supporting the institution that has had a profoundly positive effect on his life.
“As a UW alum and patient, I’m very proud of the research that’s going on here,” Westrick says. “We are in an unprecedented time in terms of what researchers are doing in immunotherapy and in tailoring treatments to specific genetic mutations of an individual patient’s cancer. We’re not at a cure yet, but in most cancers we’re seeing really significant improvements in length of remission and overall total survival.”
Having cancer has altered the course of Westrick’s life. He changed his goals from career advancement to living long enough to see his children graduate from high school, then college and then to see them “blossom as young adults.” Whatever else comes along in life, I’ve been extremely fortunate,” he says. “Looking back, the last 22 years as a cancer survivor have changed my life in a positive way. I chose to make it that way and live that way and be an optimist. I think that positive outlook is one of the reasons I’m still around.”