Monday, June 29, 2009

Cancer Survivor Takes on Century Ride

Benjamin Grass is a graduate of Williams college and one of my first customers. We have stayed in touch over the years. He recently sent me this article via email. I want to share it with all of you.

Lebanon -- Benjamin Grass came from Colorado to attend Dartmouth Medical School. Never once did he think his trip east would include becoming a medical subject.
That changed exactly five months ago. Since a Jan. 27 diagnosis of testicular cancer, Grass has gone from DMS student to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center patient to cancer survivor to Norris Cotton Cancer Center employee. Also an avid cyclist, the 23-year-old is ready to prove his health by completing the 100-mile route set for the annual Audrey Prouty Century Ride on July 11.
“I'm not very much an endurance kind of rider,” Grass said this week during a break from his work in smoking cessation research with NCCC pediatrician Susanne Tanski. “Long, long rides can be tough for me. But a couple of weekends ago, I went and rode up Mount Moosilauke, through the pass and back. That's about 96 miles with 5,000 feet of climbing. If I can do that, I can do the Prouty.”
Bicyclists and walkers will populate Hanover and the surrounding area for the 28th Prouty in two weeks. Norris Cotton Cancer Center officials have set a ceiling of 3,200 riders for the biking portions and a goal of raising $2.25 million to support NCCC's cancer research and patient services.
Grass had to make use of those services earlier this year, just one trimester into what was supposed to be four years of DMS study. A competitive mountain biker during his undergraduate days at Williams College, Grass felt pain in the area of one of his testicles in late January. Inflammation isn't an uncommon thing from riding bikes, Grass said, but a growing intensity in the pain eventually required a trip to DHMC's emergency room, where Dr. Elijah DeKoning met him.
“It was clearly engorged with blood, and he wanted to an ultrasound, of which I've had many,” Grass said. “He could see a black mass in the center (of the testicle).
“What was really amazing about the ER doc was when he came in. He said, ‘I have no diagnosis yet, but I wanted to tell you that I went to Dartmouth Medical School, and in my first year I was diagnosed with lymphoma while I was in Dick's House.' That he had all his care here and went to the medical school was amazing.”
Two other things also worked in Grass' favor: An aggressive approach to treatment and the knowledge that testicular cancer is one of the most curable forms of the disease.
Comparing past ultrasounds with new ones, DHMC urologist Dr. John Seigne confirmed the cancer diagnosis and surgically removed the diseased testicle within a day. A month later, Grass underwent a laparoscopic procedure to determine if abdomenal lymph nodes had been affected by the disease. Discovering they hadn't ensured Grass would not have to go through chemotherapy as part of his treatment, needing only to recuperate from the two surgeries instead.
According to information on,/ testicular cancer affects only about 1 percent of all American men, but it is the most common cancer in men between the ages of 15 and 40. Caucasian men have a five times greater incidence rate than African-American men and twice the incidence rate of Asian-Americans. When caught early, testicular cancer has a 95 percent survival rate.
“I certainly would imagine that, with what he's been through as a medical student and a cancer survivor, it would bring it home to you immediately what the importance of cancer research is,” Seigne said. “That's particularly with testes cancer, which is an example of a disease that really has been dramatically changed by the results of research. It's one of the first cancers proven to be treatable by chemotherapy.
“Through large clinical trials, there's been a revolution in the management of it. It's an example of a disease that really can show the value of research.”
His illness has temporarily halted Grass as far as his graduate education is concerned; he'll resume his studies later this year. In the interim, research has taken over his life.
Once recovered from his operations, Grass joined Tanski's staff at NCCC in late April and is currently working on a pair of smoking cessation projects. In one, Grass helps distribute smoke-free home and car messages to area clinics, with a plan of determining their effectiveness over time.
In the other, Grass hands out free nicotine replacement therapy to interested pediatric patients. DHMC nurses screen all incoming patients for smoking in their homes; if someone wishes to quit, they page Grass. “The nurses call me ‘Smokin' Ben,' ” he joked in an e-mail yesterday.
Then there's the research related to the Prouty.
Grass admitted he's more mentally geared to mountain biking than road biking. The former is aggressive from the start, especially for the single-speed bikes he rides. The latter requires a level of patience he's slowly learning to acquire.
“There had been several months of off-the-bike and bed rest, but I'm feeling pretty good,” Grass reported. “I ride about 10-15 hours a week. I'm feeling pretty fast. My hope is to be able to race in the college mountain biking season in the fall.
“I did race on the road my senior year (at Williams) a little bit, but I'm a stupid road racer. As a mountain biker, when they say go it's a 2½-hour time trial on dirt. In road biking, you have to be smart, let the other guy do the work so you can outsprint him. I think I have a handle to be able to race with fast guys as a mountain biker, but I'm so stupid I do all the work for them.”
The upcoming ride has given Grass ample opportunity to thank many people for their support: mom Amy Greenfield and her husband, Gary Weil; dad Harry Grass and his wife, Karyn; friends Teresa Rodriguez, Kolene McDade, Begem Lee and Shahid Ali, and Rodriguez's grandparents, Jack and Terry Lyons. Grass also said he's received “incredible support” from the Williams College cycling team, many of whose members will join Grass for his Prouty trek. (Look for the folks in the purple, cow-spotted uniforms.)
All will be in his thoughts when Grass extends his Dartmouth journey from the classroom to the road.
“This is going to be really fun for me,” Grass said. “I feel like no one is better prepared to do the Prouty than a Dartmouth Medical School student and a cancer survivor who got his treatment here and now works here. I genuinely feel the care I got when I was here was improved by the fact that this is a cancer center.”