Brian Humberd firmly believes in an attitude of gratitude.
The biotech recruiter from Melrose, Massachusetts remains eternally grateful to Dana-Farber medical oncologist David Fisher, MD, who not only recommended a life-saving stem cell transplant to treat his central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma, but whose advice enabled Humberd to become a father after his cancer treatments.
“I’m here today because of Dr. Fisher. I have this beautiful life today because of him,” Humberd says. “I fight every day to make sure I’m making a difference with my second chance. I fight every day to make sure my children know the importance of gratitude, resilience, love, and faith.”
‘I’ll always be your doctor’
Humberd was only 26 when he started having debilitating headaches in 2003. An MRI revealed a large tumor on the frontal lobe of his brain. The diagnosis wasn’t conclusive at that time but was presumed CNS lymphoma, an extremely rare form of cancer that most often occurs in people over 50.
Humberd came to Dana-Farber and consulted with Fisher.
“It was terrifying, to be 26 and not know what was going to happen,” he says.
Fisher referred him to a local CNS specialist who was adept in “presumed” cases.
“Dr. Fisher’s demeanor and bedside manner were incredible. He told me, ‘I’ll always be your doctor. No matter what you need, I’m always here for you.’”
Fisher also advised Humberd to have his sperm preserved before starting any chemotherapy in case he wanted to start a family someday.
“That never would have crossed my mind,” Humberd says.
Primary CNS lymphoma usually responds well to the initial standard line of therapy but has a high recurrence rate, usually 50 to 60 percent in the first two years. After two years in remission, Humberd suffered a relapse in 2005. He started a different regimen of high-dose chemotherapy and went into remission a second time but had to remain on quarterly maintenance chemo treatments, which required week-long hospital stays.
After three-and-a-half years on maintenance treatments, Humberd knew he needed to make a change. He was now married and felt that so much of his life was on hold because of the chemo treatments and the resulting brain fog.
“I felt there was so much I couldn’t do; I couldn’t move on with my life,” he says. “Then my dad said, ‘Why don’t you call Dr. Fisher?’”
‘On the other side, there is life’
Fisher told Humberd that he was an ideal candidate for a stem cell transplant.
“Dr. Fisher told me, ‘You’re young, healthy and in remission. You’ll feel sicker than you ever have before during the transplant itself, but on the other side there is no more chemotherapy, and there is life,’” Humberd says.
The stem cell transplant process unfolds in several phases. In Humberd’s case, he would have an autologous stem cell transplant, in which his own stem cells were harvested and “scrubbed.” He underwent eight days of intensive chemotherapy to eliminate all traces of cancer. On January 15, 2010 – a day Humberd calls “my new
Recovery was rough going at first; he couldn’t keep any food down and slept through day after day. He found comfort in the steadfast support from Janaelle, his wife, the hundreds of messages of encouragement from his family and friends, and from the guidance of the care team at Dana-Farber, which was well-versed in handling the side effects of transplants.
Humberd remembers, “I asked the nurse, ‘When am I going to feel better?’ She responded, ‘Probably in a couple of weeks.’ I woke up one day and realized I definitely felt a lot better. I looked at the calendar and, sure enough, it was two weeks out. The care team has things dialed in so precisely.”
A grateful family of four
As Humberd felt stronger with each passing month, he and his wife, Janaelle, were finally able to better enjoy their time together, with quarterly getaways instead of maintenance treatments. They also started planning their family. Savannah Faith was born in 2013.
“She’s our ladybug,” Humberd says. “She’s the cutest, most precious thing, so funny and hypercompetitive at almost everything we do, including playing Uno.”
Their son Leo Joseph was born in 2018, named for Humberd’s grandfather.
“He’s a little maniac who we love more than anything,” Humberd says with a laugh. The four of them relish family game night, riding bikes and spending time outside together.
The recently opened CNS Lymphoma Center at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, the first center of its kind in the world, is now helping patients like Humberd with comprehensive care and research for patients with primary or second CNS lymphoma. Fisher is among the center’s experts who are providing the most advanced treatment options available, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, targeted therapies, clinical trials and, of course, stem cell transplants.
As Humberd celebrates 13 cancer-free years since his transplant, he says, “I realize how blessed we are to all be healthy and to have two healthy, beautiful children, who wouldn’t be here without Dr. Fisher,” he says. “I make sure they understand the importance of resilience and of gratitude in this life.”