Maine warden talks about stem cell transplant, plans

Deputy Chief Game Warden Gregory Sanborn chats with friends at a stem cell drive hosted by the University of Maine football team at the Memorial Union on Wednesday. It was a large turnout and many wardens turned out to be give samples in hopes of being a donor for their deputy chief, who has cancer. BDN photo by Linda Coan O’Kresik

On Saturday afternoon, Gregg Sanborn stood in a stuffy boat-storage building, dressed in the Maine Warden Service’s dress red tunic, and watched as preparations were made for that day’s annual moose permit lottery at Oquossic Marine.

Always tall and lanky, Sanborn didn’t look like a man who is battling a deadly disease. He didn’t act like one, either.

He swapped stories with people who approached him, and grinned broadly as he shared the secret that has buoyed his hopes over the past week or so: A stem cell match had been found. His transplant had been scheduled. In a little more than two weeks, he’d be in Boston, beginning the yearlong struggle that he hopes will save his life.

The only evidence that Sanborn is battling cutaneous T-cell lymphoma was a subtle one, at best: He didn’t go very far without another Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife employee following his progress, or tailing behind. And when he wasn’t within earshot, one or another of his concerned co-workers would begin whispering to each other.

“Should we get Gregg a chair?” one would ask, prompting a speedy scramble to find the deputy chief warden a place to sit.

“How long do you think he wants to stay?” another would whisper, prompting others to shake their heads and admit that Sanborn would likely surprise them all with his tenacity and stamina … again.

Gregg Sanborn is a tough man facing a tough battle against a disease that doesn’t care about such things.

If he didn’t receive the stem cell transplant — which will start a little more than a week after he begins undergoing extensive chemotherapy and radiation therapy on July 9 — the cancer would eventually win. He would die.

If the stem cell transplant doesn’t work out as hoped, the cancer will still win.

Sanborn knows that. He’ll tell you as much. And now he’s ready for the fight of his life … a fight for his life.

And like the buttoned-down, all-business law enforcement man he is, he’s taking things step by step.

Last week, he underwent more medical tests. Those preparations will continue through this week. Then his focus will shift, at least for a brief time.

“The week of July 4, I’ve got no doctors’ appointments at all,” Sanborn said on Tuesday afternoon, during a brief telephone interview.

“I’ll be doing a few things that I want to do, and that I need to do,” he said. “First, I’ve got to get my house as sterile as it can be, so that when I get home it will be ready for me.

After he leaves for Boston, Sanborn doesn’t expect to be back home for a year. During that time, he’ll live in a sterile environment designed to protect him as the donated stem cells rebuild an immune system that doctors will have strategically destroyed through chemo and radiation.

In the meantime, his “young fella,” stepson David Currier, a recent graduate of the University of Maine, will take care of things on the home front as Sanborn and his wife, Deborah, are in Boston.

“I asked him if he wanted to live here at home, take care of things, while my wife and I are in Boston. He said he would. He stepped to the plate, and he’s learning all kinds of skills,” Sanborn said, chuckling at the thought of Currier acting in the role of homeowner. “When I was 22, I had no interest in learning everything that he is.”

One of the skills that Sanborn hopes Currier masters while he’s away: Gardening.

“When I was younger, I had no interest at all in gardening,” Sanborn said. “Now it’s one of the things that I really enjoy. But if I get home and my plants are all dead, so be it.”

When he’s hospitalized in Boston, Sanborn says he’ll do the best he can to keep in touch with friends and family. He also says he doesn’t know how he’ll feel, or how much communicating he’ll be able to do.

“I don’t know how it’s going to work,” he said. “My wife gave me one of those iPad thingies. I’m trying to figure out how that works.”

Sanborn has prepared as well as he can for the journey ahead. He sat down and made out a will. He has left is garden in good hands … he hopes. He wrote a letter to supporters who attended and organized the stem cell drives. He wrote another letter to his “family” at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, where he has been heading to work daily, even after his cancer diagnosis last fall.

“Everything’s a process and a step. [Wednesday's] a big step for me because I won’t have work to be a mental break for me,” said Sanborn, who explained that today is his final day of work until he is hopefully cleared by doctors some time in 2013. “Up until now, when I’ve gone to work I’ve been doing the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s business, not the business of cancer. I won’t have that until I come back to work.”

After he leaves the office today, Sanborn faces 10 days at home before he heads to Boston for what he knows will be an agonizing process.

But next week, he has no commitments. He has no doctor’s appointments. He can do whatever he wants to do.

“I think I’m gonna go trout fishing, catch a trout,” he said, softly. “I’m gonna play a round of golf.”

After that, the true battle will begin.

Here’s the complete text of the letter that Sanborn sent to DIF&W employees on Tuesday:

Dear Fellow Game Wardens and Department Employees,

I would like to take a moment to relate a bit of good news that was confirmed last week. I was notified by Dana Farber that a stem cell donor match has been found. Under the rules of “Be the Match” the only information that can be released to me for one year is that the donor is a male, 26 years of age. At this time I do not even know what state or country he is from. Staff at Dana Farber tells me that this profile is a very good match for me and increases the chances of a successful stem cell transplant.

I would also like extend my appreciation and gratitude to all those who have given me encouragement over the last nine months as I continue to fight cancer. Your kind words and notes have not gone unnoticed and have helped my mental aspect greatly. A special thanks to all of you that joined the world wide stem cell/bone marrow data base. Hopefully, someday you will get the call to potentially save someone that finds themselves in a similar predicament as me. Whether or not my match comes from the donor drive in Orono or a drive in Fairbanks, Alaska, the fact a match was found clears one of the biggest hurdles on my way to being cured. The awareness that my disease has created and the subsequent “Be the Match” drives have resulted in over 700 names from Maine and New Hampshire being added to the world wide registry. That is definitely a positive that was created out of a real negative diagnosis.

Not surprisingly, during this past year I have noticed that the simple activities that normally bring me contentment and happiness in my personal life, such as bird hunting with my dogs, fly-fishing with my family or gardening, have failed to do so. The uncertainty of the immediate future and planning my life around doctors appointments and medical testing has made cancer an entity that is always present. However, at work I found myself emerged in the job and forgetting about the fight that lies ahead. Unfortunately, tomorrow, June 27th will be my last day at the office until the doctors clear me to return.

As it stands right now, I will be admitted to Bringham and Women’s hospital on July 9 th to start the stem cell transplant process. As I understand it, the first 8 days I will be receiving high doses of chemotherapy and radiation and will only be semi-conscious. The goal of that is to kill all cancer cells. On day 8, I will be receiving the donated stem cells that will rebuild my immune system that the first 8 days of treatment has completely destroyed. The donated stem cells are my life line. If all goes well, I will be in the hospital for 6 weeks.

Fortunately, my family is hanging tough on this and my son has agreed to move back home and take care of the house, dogs and garden during my Boston experience. Unfortunately, upon my return from the hospital, I will need to be in isolation to protect myself from infections until my new immune system is strong enough, usually about a year. It will be a long year before I can resume “normal” activity and go back to work. I will miss seeing everyone at work.

The Colonel will be forwarding my “Boston” mailing address to Department personnel sometime after the ninth. I would love to hear from everyone. The way I figure it, if I get enough mail the Docs in Boston might think I’m important or something and work extra hard to cure me! In all seriousness, my doctors say if this works, I’ll be trading this one year for 30, or more, good ones. I’ll hang onto that in the days ahead.

Again, thank you for all that was done for my family and me.

Sincerely,

Major Gregg Sanborn

Maine Warden Service

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.