Beating the odds against stage IV melanoma

Faced with a grim diagnosis, Bob Griffith gives hope to current cancer patients

May 29, 2014

Like most kids in sunny Southern California, Bob Griffith spent plenty of time in the sun. Sunscreen was an afterthought during days spent surfing and swimming leaving Griffith with severe sunburns on more than one occasion. Little did Griffith know that those repeated burns would come back to haunt him.

When Griffith, who had a history of basal cell carcinomas, felt a spot on his head, he immediately went to his dermatologist to have it checked out. The growth was frozen off but when it returned, Griffith could tell it was bigger and had a different texture and color.

In February 2000, Griffith was diagnosed with stage 2 melanoma and turned to UCI Health for treatment from a team of oncologists at the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Scalp melanomas tend to behave more aggressively, leaving Griffith and his family to seek aggressive medical treatment.

Although he didn’t know it at the time, Griffith’s relationship with the medical center would continue well past the conclusion of his cancer treatments. Years after arriving as a patient, Griffith has become the heart and soul of the UCI Health Melanoma Center, providing much-needed emotional support and hope to patients — and an extra set of hands for the staff.

It was Dr. James G. Jakowatz, director of the UCI Health Melanoma Center, who excised the tumor on Griffith’s head and a large portion of normal tissue surrounding the tumor to reduce the chance that any cancer cells remained.

Six months later, Dr. William Armstrong, UCI Health head and neck surgeon, performed a radical neck dissection to remove an enlarged lymph node on Griffith’s neck. Sixty affected lymph nodes were also removed, leaving a faint scar behind his ear and down his neck.

In 2002, worse news arrived leaving his family nearly inconsolable. A positron emission tomography, or PET scan, showed the cancer had spread to Griffith’s small intestines and liver. His prognosis was grim: stage IV melanoma, with just a 5 percent chance of survival. 

“The news was beyond devastating and very difficult to take,” said Linda Griffith, Griffith’s wife of nearly 43 years. “It was a huge slap in the face.”

Griffith’s treatment plan was intense and overwhelming with a bleak prospects: surviving another nine months without chemotherapy or 15 months with the treatment. 

“I felt like I was hit with a two-by-four,” Griffith said. “I knew the battle was about to get much, much harder for me — but even more so for my wife and daughter.”

That December, Jakowatz performed a risky and complicated nine-hour surgery to remove 24 inches of Griffith’s small intestines that were riddled with cancerous tumors. 

After healing from surgery and under the care of UCI Health oncologist Dr. John Fruehauf, Griffith endured four cycles of inpatient chemotherapy infusions along with taking five different cancer medications and giving himself at-home injections.

Griffith still needed more treatment. During a two-year clinical trial, UCI Health oncologist Dr. Leonard Sender administered immunotherapy that resulted in severe side effects, including high fevers, loss of hair and appetite, and vomiting. The therapy was so intense that Griffith would have to be admitted to the hospital one weekend a month for the first year to receive treatment, then every other month during the second year.

“It was beyond barbaric,” said Linda. “This type of cancer is insidious and the treatment is so ravaging. I am so grateful that we are on the other side of it now.”

From patient to survivor

Fourteen years later, Griffith doesn’t miss a beat. His last PET scan in July 2013 was clear of any cancer. But he is still a regular at UC Irvine Medical Center — only now, it's as coordinator of the center's Buddy System mentor program, which he has been part of for 10 years. He is also a volunteer for Jakowatz, whom he credits for saving his life. The two have a congenial, good-humored rapport.

Each Wednesday, Griffith arrives at 6:30 a.m. to meet with every new melanoma patient. Griffith’s energy and enthusiasm is infectious. He serves as Jakowatz’s "opening act," kicking off each patient’s visit with the story of his survivorship and a ringing endorsement of the surgeon.

Griffith then swings by the infusion center, where patients are undergoing chemotherapy, to offer his help doing whatever the staff needs. His friendly disposition and outgoing nature is appreciated by patients and staff alike.

“Bob is a godsend to our melanoma clinic,” Jakowatz says. “He had the worst melanoma and should have died. But he never gave up.  He sought every treatment he could. Bob shows our current patients that there is life after melanoma and that gives them enormous hope and relief.”

Medical assistant Jorge Vega is effusive in his praise for Griffith and his impact on patients.

“Bob’s a role model to me — a father figure in many ways,” Vega says. “He goes above and beyond for everyone here and is a real inspiration. I really look up to him for giving so much of his time and energy. It’s motivating to be in his presence.”

For Griffith, it’s all about giving back.

“I have been given a gift of time and I try to find meaning in everything in life,” says Griffith. “I had less than a five percent chance of survival and I made it. That must mean something and I’ve realized I have to do something with the time I’ve been given.”

A retiree after a 30-year career with an engineering and technology services staffing company, Griffith also has been a reserve officer with the La Palma Police Department since 1992, working in the patrol and detective divisions. He is also a member of the North Orange County SWAT team. Prior to La Palma, he served as a reserve deputy with the Orange County Sheriff's Department for seven years.

Griffith is also on the board of directors for the National Law Enforcement Cancer Support Foundation, serving as vice president of cancer survivorship. The organization supports members of the law enforcement community through their cancer journey with one-on-one mentoring. He’s been instrumental in recruiting new board members to the nonprofit including many UCI Health oncologists and social workers, and Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Sandra Hutchens.

In his free time, Griffith enjoys bicycling and playing the drums — he’s a jazz aficionado — and doting on his two young grandchildren.

Photo: Bob Griffith, right, with infusion center nurse Sim Cataluna in the Chao Comprehensive Cancer Center.

— Susan Thomas, UCI Health Marketing & Communications