GOP activist fights cancer with usual optimism

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Saturday, August 28, 2004. 
Valley Press Staff Writer

If not for the shaved head and the IV dripping into a tube in his chest, you'd never suspect Dean Henderson had cancer.

The smile, the hearty laugh, the optimism, the unending curiosity, all those are unchanged in a man whose life was altered in the most dramatic of ways earlier this year. A huge tumor had taken residence in his chest, pushing into his heart, lungs and pulmonary artery; a biopsy identified it as highly aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Also unchanged is Henderson's concern for others - he insists his wife has had a harder time than he, physically, while she's pregnant with their second child. Memorably, the pregnancy was confirmed a few days before Henderson's diagnosis.

"It was like God was saying, 'I'm going to give you this thing, but the consolation prize is, I'm going to let your wife get pregnant,' " said Henderson, explaining that wife, Oanh, had struggled with infertility for more than three years.

Oanh is due to deliver the couple's first son around Thanksgiving, and with Henderson responding well to treatments, he says, "We'll have a lot of things to be thankful for."

On this particular day, Henderson, 39, is sharing the events of the last six months from an amply padded lounge chair in the Antelope Valley Cancer Center's infusion room. A cocktail of chemotherapy drugs is entering his chest, most through the IV, some administered by a nurse. Remarkably, Henderson can pronounce each one, and explain what each does to his body. Henderson sounds like a doctor when he discusses his condition, his knowledge gleaned from a sister-in-law who is an oncology nurse, and the medical reports he reads with a dictionary at the ready, to translate the medical terms into English.

Waiting on a side table are his cell phone and palm pilot, which he consults to confirm the time line of his diagnosis, surgery and chemo treatments. When his treatment is over, Henderson will return to the office - a former Palmdale Planning Commissioner, Henderson owns Mammoth Mortgage in Lancaster.

The symptoms started at the end of January, Super Bowl Sunday to be exact, when Henderson found himself so fatigued he couldn't keep his eyes open during the game. All through February, he was exhausted, short of breath and started shedding pounds from his trim, 150-pound frame. "I thought I had a bad flu, but a cool flu - without the sore throat and no runny nose," Henderson said.

Henderson saw a doctor in early March. An EKG came back abnormal, but he was prescribed antibiotics and cough syrup.

The medication didn't help, of course, and the symptoms were getting worse.

"I couldn't walk up the stairs in my house without becoming winded. I'd have to stop several times," said Henderson, whose weight was down to 129 pounds. "I couldn't sleep, breathing was a problem and I had a dry cough."

Lung specialist sought

Henderson figured he should see a lung specialist, and made an appointment with pulmonologist Dr. Pradeep Damle. At the urging of his wife, Henderson typed out a list of 13 symptoms to show the doctor, so he wouldn't forget any of them. Damle ordered a blood test and chest X-ray.

After the X-ray, Henderson knew something was up.

"They don't tell you anything, but you can tell by their faces," he said.

A CAT scan was performed, and Henderson then returned to his office.

He'd just settled in and was on the phone with a client when the doctor called.

"He told me, 'You have two large masses in your chest. Go to the hospital right away. Waiting for you will be a cardiologist, pulmonologist, cardiovascular surgeon and echocardiographer,' " Henderson remembers. "That was the scariest moment right there - you go from thinking you're the healthiest person to a having a team of people waiting for you."

Dr. Abdallah Farrukh, a friend of Henderson's and chairman of Antelope Valley Hospital's board of trustees, was waiting there with a wheelchair, allowing him to bypass the line of dozens of people waiting to check in. As he was wheeled toward a room, hospital staffers fastened a wrist band on Henderson and had him sign some of a myriad of forms.

At AV Hospital, "They prioritize beds. Whatever Dr. Damle told them, gave me priority," Henderson said.

Options presented

Various options were presented to Henderson - a surgeon might even break open his rib cage to cut out the tumor - and various doctors' names were bandied about. Henderson noted each name, and his good friend, Palmdale City Councilman Richard Loa, put in calls to friends "in the know" to check on their reputations.

Henderson's friend Frank Visco was at the receiving end of a number of those calls.

"Frank Visco knows everybody - I had to get clearance from Frank to make sure they were OK," said Henderson, a Republican activist, referring to the granddaddy of GOP bigwigs in the Valley. Henderson himself is well-known in the local political scene, and is president of the Antelope Valley Congress of Republicans, a more moderate-leaning GOP group.

Another scan revealed the two masses. One was the tumor, a 14x14x10 cm monster invading the heart, reaching into the left lung and squeezing the pulmonary artery. The other was a liter or so of fluid surrounding the heart. That explained the shortness of breath and fatigue - Henderson's heart was struggling to pump, and his blood wasn't properly oxygenated.

After a sleepless night in the intensive care unit, Henderson underwent surgery early in the morning of Tuesday, April 13.

Stable heart a priority

A team of doctors decided that stabilizing the heart was more pressing than worrying about the tumor, so they cut three holes into his left side and drained the fluid.

"When I woke up, I felt great," Henderson said. "I was breathing good and I never had a tinge of pain."

Henderson's family filled the room, many with tears in their eyes. Henderson said he had to find the pair of eyes that looked the driest and concentrate there, to avoid breaking down himself.

Over the 10 days he was hospitalized, visitors came in a steady stream bringing cards, flowers, even a Power Rangers blanket that the patient considers his lucky charm.

"A major part of recovery is positive attitude, and what's contributed to that for me is the huge amount of support I've had," Henderson said. "There were so many flowers. Every nook and cranny of counter space was filled. I have a huge cheerleading team, and that makes a big difference."

Tumor was stage IV

A few days later, a biopsy showed the tumor was stage IV B-Cell non-Hodgkins high grade lymphoma. The "stage IV" and the "High Grade" meant the cancer was serious, but to Henderson's doctors, the news couldn't have been better. The aggressive form of lymphoma responds well to treatment and doctors gave Henderson a 90% chance at recovery.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is the fifth most-common cause of cancer in the United States, and its prevalence has expanded rapidly over the past 20 years. More than 54,000 Americans are diagnosed with the cancer each year, and more than 25,000 people die from it annually: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Jordanian King Hussein are among its victims. But as the type of lymphoma has become more common, it also has become more treatable.

"The doctors were wonderful," Oanh Henderson said. "From Day One, they were very thorough, explained everything to us in detail, and didn't leave anything out."

Henderson's received chemotherapy about every three weeks since his hospital stay, and recently completed his sixth round. Henderson is scheduled for eight rounds.

Tumor had shrunk

Halfway through the chemo, Henderson went through another CAT scan. This one showed the tumor had shrunk to about an eighth its former size, and was now 7x7x5.5 cm. Nodules on his lungs had disappeared, leaving only scars.

"He's made a remarkable recovery, and hopefully things will continue to progress in a very favorable manner," Visco said, calling Henderson a "class act." "We're praying that it does."

Chemo hasn't brutalized Henderson as much as it hurts some other patients. Sure, his thick, brown hair fell out and his fingertips are numb, but Henderson knows he's fortunate to have regained his appetite and avoided the nausea. In fact, he giggles about turning the televisions in the infusion room to the Food Channel, a move that draws grumbles from other patients who've lost their enjoyment of food.

Now 167 pounds, Henderson's regained the weight he lost, and then some, thanks in part to the steroid he takes for a week after his chemo treatments.

He found a good use for his anti-nausea medication - Oanh was given permission by her doctor to take a smaller dosage to combat a bad case of morning sickness.

"It's almost like we're experiencing the same things at the same times, but hers is worse, because I'm feeling great," Henderson said.

Oanh and Dean Henderson both term her pregnancy a miracle. She had stopped the infertility treatments in December 2003 because she is to be matron of honor in her sister's wedding in October - as fate would have it, if she hadn't conceived shortly thereafter, a second baby might not have been possible because chemotherapy can cause sterility.

"You pray day by day, and we feel so blessed that we were able to get pregnant in all of this," Oanh Henderson said.

"Things couldn't have been more miraculous," said Dean Henderson, who already is a daddy to 4-year-old Madison.

Through it all, Henderson has maintained his typical upbeat attitude.

Referring to the emotional "stages" many cancer patients experience, he said, "I skipped anger and denial. I don't get angry over anything, and I'm too practical for denial."

"I always think I'm going to be the one to beat everything," he said.

A cut above: Cancer patient battles back

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Monday, July 25, 2005.

Valley Press Staff Writer

PALMDALE - A few weeks ago, Dean Henderson got a haircut.

That may not sound like big news, but it had been well over a year since his last cut, after chemotherapy treatments caused his hair to fall out in clumps.

In March 2004, Henderson was diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, after a huge tumor invaded his chest.

An intense round of chemotherapy shrunk the mass and eliminated some growths on his lungs, but didn't eliminate the threat.

Earlier this year, Henderson received a super-high dose of chemotherapy followed by a transplant to replace the bone marrow and blood cells killed off by the treatment.

Henderson, a Republican activist and former Palmdale planning commissioner, moved into City of Hope's cancer center in Duarte for about a month.

Tests a month after the treatment showed that what's left of the tumor has gone inactive, dead in a sense, leading doctors to use the "R" word cancer patients hope to hear.

"There are several definitions of remission - I'm not in complete remission, because I still have something in there. I'm just in remission," he said. "I went into partial remission when it stopped growing and started shrinking."

Henderson went back to work in April at his Lancaster mortgage company and settled back into life with his family, which has grown during the past tumultuous year.

Son Reagan was born 7 months ago, a miracle baby conceived after years of infertility treatments and just before Henderson began chemotherapy. Chemo normally hampers fertility.

Reagan joins sister Madison, 5, and mom Oanh, who held down the fort at home, running the business at Mammoth Mortgage and caring for Henderson when he returned home in late February.

"When I got home from City of Hope, my wife was like Super Woman," said Henderson, 40.

Now feeling healthy and strong again, the main reminders of Henderson's ordeal are his missing taste buds, his numb feet and the many medications he's still taking. The chemo wiped out his immunities, for example, so Henderson is taking pills to prevent chicken pox.

Looking back over the past 18 months, Henderson said his low point came while recovering from the bone marrow transplant and heavy chemotherapy dosage.

"I had no energy - it got to the point where I didn't have enough energy to pick up the phone," he recalled on a recent afternoon, his son perched on his lap. "There were days I couldn't even talk, because my mouth was so messed up. The chemo killed all the mucus membranes. And I was really nauseous."

As bad as the physical symptoms was the loneliness. Henderson's family couldn't visit often, because the children were too young, and the nearly 90-mile trip to Duarte prevented most other friends from coming. His lack of energy and painful mouth made phone calls difficult, as well.

But like women forgetting the pain of childbirth, all that's in the past for Henderson now.

He credits support from friends, family and even strangers in aiding his recovery.

"That was a vital piece of the puzzle to my healing and getting better and keeping a good attitude," Henderson said. "You want to make sure you get better, because you have this huge team of people rooting for you. The support was almost as important as what the doctors were doing."

Close friend Rita Burleson, a fellow worker on Republican causes, brought meals to Henderson's family daily while he regained his strength following the bone marrow transplant.

Complete strangers came up to tell him their church was praying for him, after seeing articles in the newspaper.

"There was no way I could stay sick, I had too many people praying for me," an appreciative Henderson said.

So much love and support from the community at large has changed Henderson's perspective as he contemplates a return to the competitive world of local politics.

"Even my adversaries have been so great, the Democrats are nice to me - it's hard to fight a fight when you like everyone," he said. "It takes an edge off your competitiveness."

As an example, Henderson mentioned his friend Abdallah Farrukh, a doctor on Antelope Valley Hospital's elected board of directors.

"I couldn't have higher regard for Dr. Farrukh - he kept track of me the whole time I was in the hospital," Henderson said. "Now, the board has an idea that doesn't sound very good, to use eminent domain to stop the new hospital coming to Palmdale.

"I stay out of those fights (now). Where I used to be more opinionated, to take a position and fight for my position, now, I can't say, 'This guy's a kook,' because he's not. He's a good guy."

Henderson does plan to help with friend Richard Loa's campaign to retain his seat on the Palmdale City Council this fall, but this time around he won't be digging holes for campaign signs at 3 a.m.

This week, about 200 days after the high-dose chemo and bone marrow transplant, Henderson will return to City of Hope for another battery of tests. If these show the mass in his chest is still dormant, his next check would be in February, a year after the transplant.

"A lot of people get a relapse a year later. If I can make it past a year, I'll feel more comfortable," he said. "But every person is different; you can't look at the statistics."

Henderson has maintained a positive outlook and feels fortunate to have renewed his life insurance not long before the diagnosis.

"For myself, whatever happens, happens. You don't have a whole lot of control over it," he said. "I didn't worry about myself, I worried about my family. I wouldn't want my kids to be raised without two parents. I want to be around to make sure they're raised properly."

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