by Kate Sprandio
Rich and Ann Beston met in 1994. Their story started out like most: they fell in love, got married and started a family. In honor of Melanoma Awareness Month, here’s a story of a survivor and how he and his family have come full circle with his cancer journey, which led him to his active involvement in the Noreen O’Neill Foundation’s annual Running for Cover 5k.
The late Noreen O’Neill was a resident of Chestnut Hill. Her sister, Kate O’Neill, a longtime staff member at the Chestnut Hill Business Association also is active in the foundation.
A few years into their marriage, Ann gave birth to their son Ryan. The couple was experiencing the best of what marriage can bring. About 11 months after Ryan was born, Rich received news that would change their lives.
Rich was a typical guy growing up. In the summers, he would go to the shore and hang out with his buddies on the beach. He was a fair skinned, blue-eyed boy who would get sunburned often.
“We would fry,” he said. “I would get so sunburned and, back then, you got sunburn and then you got rid of it.”
Rich and those he grew up with were never warned of the dangers of the sun – not the way we are today. He would get blisters on his body and face, but he dealt with it and went back to the beach. He believed he was invincible.
In early 2000, Rich went to the doctor for a normal check-up. He removed his shirt and the doctor noticed a quarter sized bump on his shoulder. He asked Rich what it was and Rich casually responded that he had noticed it before, but disregarded it as a boil – a thing guy’s get. The doctor inspected the so-called boil and referred Rich to a dermatologist to get a biopsy.
In February 2000, Rich was at work and received a phone call from his doctor that he will never forget.
“I went to my boss and I told him I had to leave early because I was just diagnosed with cancer,” he said.
Cancer. Just hearing the word can give a person chills. Rich didn’t know anything about cancer, nor did he ever suffer from a serious illness in his life. He said the worst thing to ever happen to him was the flu and some broken bones from playing ice hockey as a kid. Sadly, Ann was all too familiar with the dangers of melanoma. Her father passed away from it in 1981 after it metastasized to his brain. He was 47.
Rich arrived home from work and broke the news to Ann. The growing family had some good news a few weeks before when Ann found out she was pregnant with her second child. It seemed like the good and the bad were colliding and their dreams of raising a family were suddenly at risk.
“We just had our first child,” Rich said. “We were pregnant with our second. We were starting our family. I had never been a dad and Ann had never been a mom. All of that was in jeopardy.”
After his referral to a dermatologist, Rich had surgery to remove the tumor on his shoulder. CAT scans were ordered and it was discovered that he had suspicious spots on his right lung. The cancer had metastasized. He was officially diagnosed with stage IV metastatic melanoma to the lung. The five-year survival rate for stage IV is about 10 percent.
They were introduced to Lynn Schuchter, an oncologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. According to Ann, Dr. Schuchter seemed to “fall into our laps.”
Rich consulted with Dr. Schuchter and had surgery to remove two lung nodules in hopes of eradicating the disease. After the surgery, Dr. Schuchter suggested he participate in a clinical trial involving an experimental vaccine therapy, the C-Vax. The C-Vax was sponsored by the John Wayne Cancer Institute in California. The trial was a double blind phase III clinical trial.
There were 10 participants: five received the vaccine and five received the placebo. For the next 8-10 months, the vaccine was administered to his abdomen. The injections caused open wounds.
“It was painful,” he said. “There wasn’t anesthesia. The holes were like big blisters, pus holes. It was freaky.”
All the while, he wasn’t sure if he was receiving the vaccine or the placebo.
While Rich was fighting for his life. Ann was preparing to bring a new life into the world. In September 2000, Shannon Beston was born. Ann found herself caring for two babies and a sick husband.
“It was exhausting and insane, but I did what I had to do,” she said.
Rich received continuous scans throughout the clinical trial period. Towards the end of it, a scan showed he had a new spot on his smaller right lobe.
The monster was not giving up.
Dr. Schuchter proposed that Rich begin chemotherapy in June of 2001. Ann said, “For four months he would leave us on Friday for his chemo and stay in the hospital until Sunday.”
In October of 2001, the chemotherapy became too toxic for Rich, and Dr. Schuchter decided to start giving him an oral form of chemo called Temador. At this point, she asked Ann to bring in the family. They were told to get their affairs in order and prepare themselves for loss. The cancer was becoming too tough to fight.
A few months went by, and Rich got another scan that showed that the tumor found in the middle lobe hadn’t grown. Everything he went through was working. Dr. Schuchter suggested the middle lobe be completely removed. Rich was undergoing yet another surgery, but this time it would be the last one.
In March 2002, it was declared that Rich was no evidence of disease (NED). The combination of therapies, his doctors, and the support of his family and friends helped Rich overcome the biggest hurdle of his life.
“I’m so grateful to Penn and Dr. Schuchter,”Rich said. “My gratitude is immense. Ann, my parents, my sisters and their husbands, and Penn saved my life. They gave me hope.”
Rich had won his own battle, but both he and Ann agree the war against melanoma is still raging.
Kate O’Neill’s sister Noreen O’Neill founded the Noreen O’Neill Foundation for Melanoma Research in 1999. Noreen unfortunately died in July 2000.
Ann and Kate became close and, soon after, Rich and Ann were invited to join the board. Rich and Ann have become integral volunteers and assist in the planning of the annual Running for Cover 5K at the Wells Fargo Center every June.
“To give someone hope is a gift,”Rich said. “I needed it when I was struggling. If I can help anybody by giving them hope that they’ll be okay, then that’s what really makes me happy.”
For information about the Running For Cover 5K, see runningforcover.org.