Ralph Whitworth learned in 2014 that his cancer, which originated at the base of his tongue, had returned in a much more virulent form after aggressive treatment had put it in remission for a year.
The disease, called squamous cell carcinoma, is highly curable in its initial stages, but the prognosis is dire when it returns.
“It is just a vicious, lethal disease in its recurrent stage,” said Whitworth, a Rancho Santa Fe resident who co-founded a San Diego investment firm. “It’s a disease without an effective treatment. That’s what I had. So we said, let’s get (a treatment).”
At the time of his recurrence, doctors said Whitworth had eight months to live. But he has clearly beaten those odds and on Wednesday, March 2, he stood on a stage at the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club and told about 300 invited guests about his battle against cancer and the effort he has supported to find a new, promising treatment for his disease and other forms of cancer.
Whitworth and a panel of doctors and scientists talked about the potential of immunotherapy — a cancer treatment in which the body’s immune system is trained to target and kill cancer cells — to not only push back cancer’s advances, but to banish the disease forever.
“Immunotherapy s undergoing an amazing revolution. It is the most exciting area of cancer therapy,” said Dr. David Brenner, dean of UC San Diego’s medical school and one of the speakers at Wednesday’s event. “That you can use your own immune system to kill cancer cells is transformational.”
Dr. Ezra Cohen, who is treating Whitworth and is also part of a team working to advance immunotherapy as a weapon against cancer, said, “For the first time ever, as an oncologist... we now begin to believe ... we’re going to eliminate this disease in our lifetime.”
Once his cancer came back, Whitworth said, he decided that he wanted to help speed up development of immunotherapy as an effective anti-cancer treatment.
“The faster we get this done, the more people we can help,” he said. “We can’t wait around. Speed is important here.”
Whitworth said he and his wife, Fernanda, are committed to supporting the research whether or not the advances come in time to help him in his own cancer battle.
To that end, the couple have launched the nonprofit Immunotherapy Foundation, as well as provided a seven-figure grant to UC San Diego to support immunotherapy research. The university has used the funds to build and outfit two labs, as well as bring together a team of doctors and scientists to carry out the research.
The program is based at UC San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center, and it is supported by the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology.
Whitworth said the purpose of the Garden Club event, which was hosted by his friends, Brenda and Bruce Kleege, was to “raise awareness of this. If there’s a way you can find to help on this, and there’s a lot of ways to do it, then pitch in.”
Bruce Kleege, who introduced Whitworth, called his friend “the most interesting man in the world. ‘Can’t do it’ is not in his vocabulary. He’s always there to help with anything you need.”
A 2014 article on the Bloomberg Business website said that Whitworth stepped down from his position as interim chairman of the Hewlett-Packard Co. Board of Directors to focus on his cancer battle, and also took a leave from his investment firm, Relational Investors LLC.
The Bloomberg article said Whitworth is an “influential voice in corporate governance,” who is credited with helping to change the rules in the 1990s to allow today’s shareholder activism.
Closer to home, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported last year that Whitworth paid for the Rolling Stones to play a private concert at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach to celebrate his wife’s birthday, the couple’s anniversary and the launch of the Immunotherapy Foundation. Some 450 invited guests were on hand for the occasion.
Near the end of his talk on Wednesday, Whitworth — who was suffering from the flu along with battling cancer — made a rousing, emotional pledge, expressing optimism in the face of a disease which he called “a senseless scourge of humankind.”
“We’re gonna do something about it, we’re gonna get rid of this stuff. We’ve got to wipe it from the face of the Earth. We’re right at the cusp of it,” he said.
For more information, visit www.theimmunotherapyfoundation.org.