October 20, 2011

Nolan weathers cancer’s storms

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Meteorologist Davis Nolan is being treated for two types of cancer at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. (photo by Joe Howell)

Nolan weathers cancer’s storms

As a veteran meteorologist for WKRN Channel 2 in Nashville, Davis Nolan is an expert at diagnosing weather patterns that can create violent winds and thunderous storms.

But he had no hints about the potentially deadly storms that were brewing inside his own body until a routine visit to his primary care physician led to a diagnosis of not just one, but two unrelated forms of cancer.

Nolan’s doctor sent him for a biopsy after discovering a high level of prostate-specific antigen (PSA), which is sometimes a marker for cancer of the prostate, a gland located just below the bladder in men.

“The doctor said the bad news is you do have prostate cancer but the good news is it is self-contained and it hasn’t spread, so it’s totally curable,” said Nolan, 57.

As a precaution, the urologist ordered a CT scan and this time the doctors found something more ominous.

“It was something in my blood and there were two spots in my ribs and a spot in one of my lower vertebrae,” said Nolan.

The diagnosis was multiple myeloma, a cancer that originates in the plasma cells of the bone marrow and usually results in tumors in the bone.

“The doctor said this prostate thing is on the back burner now because this is much more dangerous,” Nolan remembered. “He said with these kinds of things we’re good at a five- or 10-year survival rate, but not much after that. I’m thinking, ‘my daughter will be 20 when I’m dead.’ My wife was crying. It was pretty devastating.”

Nolan’s physicians referred him to Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center to help coordinate what would become very complicated cancer treatment, including an autologous transplant using Nolan’s own stem cells to treat the multiple myeloma.

Madan Jagasia, M.D., chief of the Section of Hematology and Stem Cell Transplant and director of the Outpatient Transplant Program at VICC, was in charge of his care.

Veteran meteorologist Davis Nolan, left, rehearses a newscast with weekend anchor Erin Holt and meteorologist Justin Bruce at WKRN Channel 2. (photo by Joe Howell)

Veteran meteorologist Davis Nolan, left, rehearses a newscast with weekend anchor Erin Holt and meteorologist Justin Bruce at WKRN Channel 2. (photo by Joe Howell)

“Multiple myeloma in its active phase is, over time, a life-threatening disease,” explained Jagasia.

“Davis’s situation is a little bit unusual so it required a team approach working with his referring oncologist and his urologist at Baptist Hospital,” Jagasia said.

“We started with chemotherapy, using novel agents to try to get him into a controlled state. Then we took a hiatus from the myeloma therapy so that we could address the prostate issues.”

For his prostate cancer treatment, Nolan chose brachytherapy, which involves implanting radioactive seeds in the prostate.

Next it was time to harvest Nolan’s own stem cells from his bone marrow.

“You sit there for two or three hours and you don’t feel a thing,” Nolan explained. “I was literally having my stem cells harvested and worked on a laptop and did updates on the weather website for Channel 2.”

Nolan was able to work throughout most of the process because VICC has built a robust outpatient transplant program for patients with blood cancers.

“We’ve been doing outpatient transplants since 2006, and today close to 70 percent of our transplants are done as outpatient procedures,” Jagasia said.

“It requires a lot of pieces to be in place — a clinic that is open and fully staffed seven days a week, off-campus housing accommodations, quick access to the emergency room and rapid admission to the hospital should patients require an admission. Vanderbilt has built that infrastructure to help our patients.”

High-dose chemotherapy was used to destroy Nolan’s existing bone marrow and then his stem cells were re-infused.

This is the most dangerous phase of the transplant process and Nolan spent four days on the immune-suppression floor of Vanderbilt University Hospital, where he kept in touch with his TV colleagues — even having the Channel 2 morning show crew give an on-air shout-out to the nurses on his floor.

Today, Nolan is back at work doing TV and radio weather reports.

He takes maintenance medication to try to keep his myeloma under control, and while the disease may relapse, requiring more chemotherapy and another transplant, this experienced weather forecaster has decided to worry about potential storm clouds later.

“I was born and raised in New Orleans, and I have little elderly aunts praying novenas and rosaries for me,” Nolan smiled.

“I have people in churches here in Tennessee who I don’t even know and I’m on their prayer lists. With all of that power, maybe I can be one of the exceptions.”