In January 2006, the families of Matt Ashley and the late Jessica Doktor, two young cancer patients from Ipswich, organized a townwide bone marrow drive. Residents were asked to have a swab taken from their cheek, and their information placed into a national database of transplant candidates.
State Representative Brad Hill was among the participants.
“I actually was a match for somebody else outside of Massachusetts,” Hill recalled. “I don’t know who he was. I do know it was a young man , and I saved his life.”
Two years later, Hill — who has no family history of cancer — was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a treatable form of blood cancer. Now Hill is participating in a randomized clinical trial that mixes biological therapy, stem cell transplants, and high-dose chemotherapy to improve the lives of future cancer patients.
“That’s typical Brad, trying to help other people,” said Dr. Paul Richardson, Hill’s doctor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, in reference to Hill’s bone marrow donation seven years ago. “What I particularly love about Brad is that he’s very happy to participate in a clinical trial, because this trial is going to really help patients in the future. It’s something he was very willing to do.”
‘That’s typical Brad, trying to help other people.’
While recovering from the medical procedure that may help future patients live longer and better lives, Hill wants his constituents to know that he is still available to them.
“I am working as full time as I possibly can,” he said during a phone interview from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “I have my computer system set up in the room, and am able to do all my constituent work, and obviously my staff is there. I want people back home to know we’re not gone, we’re still doing our job, our constituent service, and still working on getting legislation passed.
“For example, Topsfield had a home rule petition before us for the Alfalfa Farm winery [to allow retail sales]. Sitting on my bedside here, I was making the calls I needed to make to get it out of the House, which we did. They can be assured that if you need help and need Representative Hill’s office, we’re open for business.”
Hill, 46, was discharged from the hospital in time for Thanksgiving and will continue his recovery at home for about two months.
Doctors detected a change in his condition earlier this year. Hill went into the hospital in late October for chemotherapy, and then his stem cells were removed in anticipation of more intense treatment. He returned to Brigham & Women’s Nov. 4 for high-dose chemotherapy, and then his own healthy stem cells were reintroduced.
The lengthy hospital stay prompted the Ipswich Republican to make his battle with cancer public.
Since 1999, Hill has served as the representative for the Fourth Essex District, which covers Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Rowley, Topsfield, and Wenham. He also is the minority whip in the House.
During an otherwise routine physical in 2008, his doctor ordered some blood tests that led to the initial diagnosis.
“For five years, it wasn’t anything that really was earth-shattering,” said Hill, who was treated with medication while his cancer was in what doctors refer to as a “smoldering” state, in which the disease is monitored but there are no symptoms.
He let select people know — officials from the towns he represents and some in the State House — but otherwise kept it quiet.
“It was a personal issue and a family issue, one that did not distract me from my job at all,” said Hill, who is married and has two children. “So, it wasn’t something we felt we had to put out publicly. Had there been a change, we would have absolutely done something. It was a family issue that we were dealing with.”
When the cancer became more active earlier this year, Hill signed on for the clinical trial.
Led by Dana-Farber and a host of partners — including pharmaceutical companies — in the United States and in France, the trial is tracking the progress of patients from 2010 through 2015.
Thus far, there are nearly 1,000 patients who first undergo a series of targeted biological treatments and chemotherapy, then have stem cells harvested, treated, and frozen before undergoing two days of high-dose chemotherapy.
The targeted treatments leave the stem cells healthy, and they are returned to the body through a process called hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.
“The metaphor I use is that the stem cells are like salmon,” said Richardson, who is the clinical director for the Jerome Lipper Center for Multiple Myeloma at Dana-Farber. “You catch them, and put them in the freezer, and you give them back to the patient and reinfuse them, just like a blood transfusion. The miracle of nature is these little guys, just like salmon, swim back to where they’re born, and regrow in the bone marrow.
“Whereas Brad previously had, kind of, crabgrass in his bone marrow from the myeloma, after this chemotherapy all the crabgrass is wiped out. Then the little salmon come back, they repopulate the bone marrow . . . then you get Kentucky bluegrass.”
The clinical trial is designed to determine the best time for the transplant.
The effects of multiple myeloma vary with patients, and even with medical advances of the past decade, some will die within months or a few years, Richardson noted. However, the median survival rate has increased.
“For Brad, the prognosis is excellent, because the new drugs we’ve developed in the last decade have transformed myeloma from a disease that used to kill in two to three years to a disease where most people, on average, live seven to 10,” said Richardson.
“Myeloma — having been a death sentence in the past — is still incurable, but in a larger proportion of patients it’s becoming more of a chronic disease.”
Knowing he’d be missing votes and some public appearances, Hill made his health status public. He also did his best to cover the bases during his absence.
“In the run-up to going in the hospital, he went overboard trying to be sure the desk was cleared off and get to every event despite the level of discomfort or outright pain, because he was going through some of the preliminary treatment, which was very impactful on him physically,” said House Minority Leader Bradley Jones Jr., who represents the 20th Middlesex District and lives in North Reading.
“I would say he raises the average for dedication — let’s put it that way,” said Jones, who hears from his friend regularly by e-mail.
For what he couldn’t do from the hospital, Hill relied on other friends, aides, and proxies to be sure his work has gotten done. For instance, former aide Jeff Stinson represented Hill at Hamilton’s Veterans Day breakfast, and he later presented a governor’s proclamation to Hamilton’s Robert Cronin, 88, a D-day veteran.
“He cares so deeply about the community that his only concern from the hospital bed wasn’t getting better, but in making sure this proclamation got delivered,” said Stinson, now an aide to Second Essex District Representative Lenny Mirra, a Republican from West Newbury.
“He’s an incredible guy, and someone I’ve been lucky to have learned from.”
He has been missed in his absence, colleagues said.
“He’s an all-around beloved guy — everyone on both sides adores him,” said Mirra. “He’s an intelligent but soft-spoken kind of guy. He’s very much respected here.”