Sometimes a happy ending is the best way to start a story.
Ronald Bolander, 85 — husband, father, retired corporate executive, volunteer and four-time liver cancer survivor — has been cancer-free for seven years.
The devoted husband of Jean, with whom he just celebrated 65 years of marriage, and proud father of three daughters and one son, started his journey with liver cancer early in 2008. “I had blood work come back that wasn’t right, and those results led to a liver biopsy,” he remembers. “It was a very painful procedure, and the results were inconclusive, but my doctor wanted to look further. I was willing to skip a second biopsy, but Jean and my children talked me into it — and I’m glad they did, because my doctor’s hunch was right, and we had some work ahead of us.”
At Roswell Park, Ronald first met Renuka V. Iyer, MD, Co-Director of the Liver and Pancreas Tumor Center and Chief of the Department of Gastrointestinal (GI) Oncology.
“Dr. Iyer and her team checked me out, and we learned I had a fairly decent-sized tumor in the middle of my liver,” says Ronald. From mid-February to early June 2008, he followed a treatment plan that included radiation. When the tumor didn’t shrink as much as his Roswell Park team had hoped for, a second phase of treatment was recommended. Weighing his options, Ronald chose surgery, and in mid-June of 2008, he had his first surgery to remove the cancer from his liver.
All seemed well — and then life sent a new set of challenges. The next six months included four months on a feeding tube, disorientation and a lack of energy and appetite. Ronald credits his recovery to the tremendous support of family and friends who advocated for his continued treatment and brought him hope when he needed it most. “I can’t say enough about how kind people have been in helping me stay strong,” he says. “People I didn’t even know did the kindest things for me, such as Ed Rutkowski (former member of the Buffalo Bills), who brought me a bottle of holy water from Rome, which I still have today.”
There were days when he felt he might never be the same again. But there were also days that brought new hope, including the day he started enjoying food again. “One night, after weeks with no appetite, Jean made a vegetable soup — a special family recipe — and I smelled it and felt better for the first time in a long while. We now call it ‘the miracle soup,’” says Ronald. (See the soup recipe below).
Once again, Ronald rebuilt his strength. But at his next exam, in March 2009, a new nodule was found on his liver, leading to an embolization — a procedure in which substances are injected into blood vessels to block or reduce blood flow to the cancer cells in the liver. Ronald was also treated with RFA — radiofrequency ablation — a procedure that uses high-energy radio waves to destroy cancer cells. “That took care of that one — and I was in pretty good shape,” says Ronald.
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But the cancer continued to persist. “We found another spot between my seventh and eighth rib, on the same side of my liver, so Dr. Sai Yendamuri, Chair of Roswell Park’s Department of Thoracic Surgery, removed half of my seventh and eighth ribs.” Ronald chuckles as he describes the ongoing joke he and Dr. Yendamuri continue to share: “The doctor told me that in six months I’d be back to normal. It’s taking a little longer, but it is improving slowly, and I just try to ignore it.”
Following up with regular biannual exams has been essential to Ronald’s journey. “The little spot kept moving around, and in September of 2010, we did another biopsy and found the cancer was back on the right upper lobe of my lung.” Ronald was treated with a three-week series of palliative radiation, which successfully controlled the tumor.
Ronald’s fourth treatment to remove the cancer took place in July 2012, when persistent problems in his chest led to a single intense, hour-long radiation session. To prepare, he participated in a simulation to help him ensure the best outcome and avoid injury to other parts of his body. “I was so impressed with how the team at Roswell prepared me for this procedure; it involved me staying still and calm in a plaster cast that was made specifically for me.”
The treatment was successful. Ronald’s all-clear diagnoses went from six months to a year to two years to the “magical five-year marker, and come next month, I’ll be seven years clear,” says Ronald.
As a four-time cancer survivor — as well as a survivor of coronary bypass surgery in 2012 — Ronald now dedicates tremendous energy to helping others. “For the past nine years, I’ve been a volunteer at Roswell. I know what patients are going through. I try to treat people with kid gloves as well as help them with a little levity, because a smile can help everyone feel better.”
Ronald is also a member of Roswell Park’s Patient and Family Advisory Council. He continues to speak at volunteer events about survivorship and help develop training programs to enhance the 450-member volunteer program. He also dedicates every Wednesday to meeting with patients and their families.
“Our greatest and heartfelt thanks to Dr. Iyer, nurse Lynn Baase and all the staff in Upper GI during my long journey. They, along with others, truly helped me to remember to keep the faith,” says Ronald.
Never give up, because there are always new treatments becoming available. And remember, there are always people to help you.
Jean Bolander's Vegetable Soup
1 beef soup bone
1 carton beef broth
4-5 white potatoes + any other vegetables
1 bottle of vegetable juice - 45 fluid oz.
Salt and Pepper to taste
- Cut up onions, carrots & potatoes, and other vegetables into small pieces by hand or in food processor.
- Add beef soup bone, carton of beef broth and vegetable juice and cook for at least 4 hours on top of stove.
- Season with salt and pepper and enjoy!
Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.