When Robert Bowen, now 68, of Huntington, W. Va, went in for a routine colon cancer screening in February 2013 the last thing he expected was to receive a leukemia diagnosis.
Doctors wanted to start him on chemotherapy in short order. Bowen and his family, however, were concerned about the long-term effects of this treatment approach and asked for a second opinion. His local oncologist referred him to The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCCC – James).
Testing at both at the OSUCCC – James and Cleveland Clinic suggested his cancer was slow growing and may not require immediate treatment. The doctors suggested a watch-and-wait approach, with regular monitoring via blood work and imaging.
About 18 months later, however, Bowen’s lymph nodes began swelling throughout his body. Tests confirmed the disease was accelerated rapidly, and he could not longer delay treatment.
“I was really down in the dumps. I didn’t feel like I had any choice but to go on chemotherapy. I had a follow-up appointment at Ohio State. My wife and I decided to wait and check in with the team one more time before we made a choice about treatment,” he recalls.
That decision ended up being a game-changer because he qualified for a clinical trial testing a new oral drug called acalabrutinib. The drug is a second-generation Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) inhibitor, a newer class of drugs shown to improve the survival of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and mantle cell lymphoma (MCL). All preclinical research and the first phase I study of the drug was completed by a team of researchers led by John Byrd, MD, at OSUCCC – James.
“I will never forget it because Dr. Byrd said: ‘You know you are a candidate for our trial?’ It was so nonchalant but it meant I had another option,” said Bowen. He started the trial a week later in December 2014. Within a few days of treatment, his lymph nodes had visibly shrank. Follow up tests over the course of the next year showed his cancer still responding to treatment. He has remained on the twice-a-day oral therapy for three years with limited side effects.
Cycling As a Mission
Before his cancer diagnosis, cycling was a casual pastime Bowen enjoyed, but afterward he said it became much more.
“My bicycle became a barometer for my health. I could feel myself getting stronger. Before my diagnosis, I enjoyed riding but after, it became my mission,” he recalls.
In 2015, he joined the Pelotonia Team Buckeye/Hope Highway team and rode 100 miles in the annual cycling event that raises money for cancer research at the OSUCCC – James.
He says he recalls standing at the starting line at 6 a.m. that first year feeling awe-struck and humbled by the number of people there to raise money for cancer research.
“I was randomly snapping pictures of the crowd and accidentally took a full-face photo of a specific man. Later, I ran into that same man coincidentally on the route, and we chatted for about an hour before parting ways,” he said.
It felt like more than a coincidence the next year when the same man — Thomas Rogers, a five-year Pelotonia rider — rolled up next to Bowen during Pelotonia. They decided to stay in touch and made plans to ride together in 2017.
“Tom joked that if we rode together, I had to do the whole thing. So this year I rode the 180,” Bowen said.
Bowen raised more than $3,000 in Pelotonia 2017 and says he will continue to ride every year as long as he is able.