30 years after cancer treatment, Encinitas man still rocking

When Russ Zinser speaks to people with cancer, he urges them to look beyond their disease and its treatment.

“That’s one of the messages I give when I talk. Figure out what you’re going to do when you get out of the treatment process, and plan on getting out,” said Zinser, 66, an Encinitas resident who will celebrate 30 years of being cancer free on June 19.

Zinser will share his empowering message at an event for cancer survivors scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 12, at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla. That date is one week before the 30th anniversary of the bone marrow transplant he received to combat chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML.

The disease is caused by a genetic mutation, and Zinser said doctors declared him cured about a year after the procedure, when tests could no longer detect the mutation in his DNA.

Before he could reach his goal of a cure, Zinser had to undergo the grueling process of the bone marrow transplant, which entailed a hospital stay of about seven weeks.

Dr. William Miller, a Scripps Clinic hematologist/oncologist who treated Zinser, said the transplant involves administering high-dose chemotherapy and total body radiation with the goal of obliterating the patient’s diseased bone marrow, and with it, his or her own immune system.

A new immune system is then put in place through the transplant, using bone marrow from a donor, which in Zinser’s case was a sibling, said Miller. (Zinser recalled that receiving the donated marrow was like getting a blood transfusion.) Today, suitable donors can also be found through a worldwide registry.

While bone marrow transplants are still used for some forms of cancer, in the case of CML, the cancer that Zinser had, a new drug became available in 2001 that effectively turns off the cancer cells and puts the patient into remission, Miller said.

Today, said Miller, researchers are working on new treatments that will harness the power of patient’s own immune system and focus that power on killing cancer cells. “That’s a cause for huge excitement and I share that excitement,” he said.

Zinser, a retired management consultant, said that at the time of his transplant, he was told to expect to be out of work for a year.

“I just would not accept that,” he said, and instead was back on the job, bald and wearing a hat, in four months. A few months after that, he was back to his passion of staying physically fit through running, playing softball and other activities.

During his hospital stay, he taught himself a music-making computer program, and later, fulfilled his goals of writing both songs and prose. One of his two novels, a science fiction tale called “In the Balance,” is available on Amazon.com. He also put out his own rock music CD.

Among the lessons he learned from his battle with cancer, said Zinser, is “that life is fragile and you could be gone in a second. Things that I may have put off, I didn’t put off anymore.”

These days, said Zinser, he keeps busy playing golf, keeping fit, making music and gardening. He also enjoys the companionship of his family, including his wife, children and grandchildren. “There’s not a lot of down time,” he said.

Anyone who has a suspicious ailment should get it checked out as soon as possible, rather than putting off a doctor visit out of fear of hearing bad news, he said, crediting early detection of his cancer with his successful treatment.

A positive attitude also helps, said Miller.

“It’s not easy to fight a potentially fatal disease to a standstill and win, it takes a huge amount of effort. Having a person who believes that can be done and is willing to fight for that outcome has been a recurrent source of inspiration in watching my patients over the last 30 years,” Miller said.

“My impression when I’ve interacted with (Zinser) over the last 30 years is that he’s enjoyed his life very much,” said Miller. “It does make a difference, it makes it possible to fight your disease and live your life as well as it can possibly be done.”

Those who want to attend the cancer survivor’s event on June 12 at Scripps Green Hospital are asked to register by June 6 at 858-554-8533. Another cancer survivor’s event is planned for June 25 at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas. Register by calling 1-800-SCRIPPS (1-800-727-4777).

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