Be here Now
The Andy Whitfield Story
Back during my Stem Cell Transplant in St James Dublin I wrote an article called Awareness 2017 This article mentioned a number of world famous people who were victims of Lymphoma. One of these was Andy Whitfield. I was three days into pre Stem Cell Transplant chemotherapy called BEAM, one of the most dangerous forms of Chemotherapy.
Andy Whitefield was born in Wales in 1971. He married Vashti in 2001, they have two children and lived in Australia . Andy passed away in Oct 2011 after battling Stage 4 Lymphoma. Andy had played the role of Spartacus in Spartacus: Blood & Sand the first season in the Starz TV show. At the end of the first Season Andy took ill and was diagnosed with Stage 2 Non Hodgkins Lymphoma. This prompted Starz to make a mini series to fill the gap between the first and second season of Spartacus: Vengeance allowing Andy time to recover from treatment. During this time Andy successfully underwent Chemotherapy and gained remission. Just prior to the commencement of Season 2 Andy had to undergo a PET scan to clear him as fit for the role. It was the results of this scan that found the Lymphoma had returned. But this time it appeared more aggressive as Stage 4 Non Hodgkins Lymphoma.
Be Here Now is a film/documentary based on Andy and Vashti’s attempts to fight Lymphoma, the summary of the film on IMDb reads
As though life is imitating art, actor and sex-symbol, Andy Whitfield, had just become a star as the lead in the hit television series,’Spartacus,’ when he is faced with his biggest personal challenge – life-threatening cancer. ‘Be Here Now’ is a feature documentary that follows him on his dramatic journey to cure himself. Confirmed in matching affirmative tattoos, he and his charismatic wife and their two children, commit to taking Andy’s healing into their own hands and living life fully, not in the shadows of the disease. Each step tests their limits and strength of character, while revealing their tenderness, humor and determination. And, as each person goes through their own transformations, the film becomes an inspiring and universal story of courage, love and resilience.”
It has taken me two years to watch this program. I knew what Andy had gone through from articles that have been published but we never watched the documentary up till Saturday night 13th of April 2019.
This is an emotional documentary to say the least. I have walked in Andy’s footstep’s so not only can I understand the procedures (which are not fully explained or named in the documentary, they only refer to first line Chemo, Rescue treatment, Radiotherapy and Stem Cell Transplant/Bone Marrow Transplant) I can relate to the pain, the mental approach and the fear of death.
One of the first things that Andy pinpointed in the documentary was that the medical team could not answer certain questions such as “How did I develop Lymphoma” the only answer he got was the answer I got “We have no idea”. I can understand the annoyance this would have caused Andy and he made more than one remark that we have to find the origin to truly be able to beat this disease. Other cancers like the main world cancer been Lung Cancer has been associated as caused by smoking, cigarette smoking is defined as a direct cause of Lung Cancer but Lymphoma was first diagnosed by Prof Thomas Hodgkin’s in 1832 – 187 years ago and we have yet to find the source of this killer. 60,000 people worldwide died last year as a direct result of Lymphoma. I completely agree with Andy’s statement that we must find the source.
I also noted some of the things Andy had been told by his Oncologist. Firstly that he had a 75% chance of beating Lymphoma. Andy’s words were “I’m not going to be one of the 25%, I’ll beat this” when he relapsed in Sept 2010 he was initially told he had 3 to 6 months to live. But the “can beat this” attitude from both Andy and his wife was obvious. Andy’s wife Vashti appears to be a driving force behind Andy. When he was been battered with the rescue Chemo she was there supporting and encouraging him. It was a difficult production for us to watch because of the similarities in procedures and low success rates associated with the rescue procedures. I am glad that I finally watched this fantastic documentary.
To watch this documentary people need to understand that every cancer victim is different, there are no two with the same. Every cancer victim will have a different mental and physical approach, Every victim will look at alternatives and make their own decision on what paths are best to take and if they can’t make this decision then they will look towards a loved one for advice. This comes across well in the documentary as Andy’s wife is a rock and the motivator behind the strength of Andy. In a lot of ways I am glad that I did not watch the film prior to my own relapse in 2017. Like I mentioned it has taken me two years to watch this documentary. I started watching it on Thursday but decided against it after the first few minutes, I had work the next day and it was getting late added to that I was unsure how I would feel about watching a documentary about a fellow victim who I knew had lost his battle.
This photo is one of the promotion images from Spartacus taken about 10 months before Andy was diagnosed. Personally he looks like he could kick the shit of anything and anyone. In the documentary he makes a lot of references to the Spartacus including the fact that if Spartacus got knocked down he would come back harder, never knowing when to stay down as that was not an option. Andy took this attitude to battle Lymphoma. I really wonder how he did not beat the disease and I believe the world lost a real hero in Andy. He is a Hero of Hero’s. I know exactly whats its like to get knocked down in life, work and treatment so again I can appreciate the attitude as mine was similar.
Just a few points that I feel are relevant and more aimed towards people who have not read my entire blog.
Lymphoma is classed as a blood caner
Types: There are two main types of Lymphoma, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Disease (HLD) and Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL) – the main difference is that HLD cancer cells have a cell within them called a Reed–Sternberg cell where NHL does not have this cell. The Reed–Sternberg Cell also for better targeting and effectively make HLD easier to attack. However HLD is the rarer of the two.
Staging: In both HLD and NHL there are 4 stages. Early Stage is Stage I (1)where only one Lymph node site is under attack, Stage II (2) defines it in 2 or more lymph node regions on the same side of the diaphragm, Stage III (3) is multiple sites above and below the diaphragm and finally Stage IV (4) is where the cancer has spread throughout the body beyond the lymph nodes (stage IV). Lymphoma most often spreads to the liver, bone marrow, or lungs (Bone marrow takes into account the skeleton).
Chemotherapy is a group of medical drugs used to attack cancer cells and these drugs vary pending many variances including the Stage of the Lymphoma. The are first line Chemotherapy treatments, second line and in some cases third line. The application of Chemotherapy drugs is defined by the oncologist and is generally spread over 6 to 12 months pending the victims reaction to the drugs.
Radiotherapy is the use of targeted beams of radiation which are aimed directly at the effected areas, this is classed as a second line therapy and generally is used following an unsuccessful course of Chemo.
PET Scans: A Positron Emission Tomography scan is an imaging test that allows your oncologist to check for diseases in your body. The scan uses a special dye containing radioactive tracers. It is the prime scan for blood cancers and basically “lights up” effected lymphoma sites allowing oncologist to map progress.
Stem Cell Transplant. including peripheral blood, bone marrow, and cord blood transplants, can be used to treat cancer. Stem cell transplants are most often used for cancers affecting the blood or immune system, such as leukemia, lymphoma, or multiple myeloma. Use in advanced Stage 4 Lymphoma only really commenced in 2017 but has been tested since 2010. There are two main types of SCT – Autologous. An autologous SCT uses your own stem cells. and Allogeneic uses stem cells from someone whose white cell antigens match your own. The build up for Autologous is with the use of extreme levels of Chemotherapy drugs.
Remission and Relapse:
Partial remission means the cancer is still there, but your tumors has gotten smaller and even with cancer cells been present they may not be active
Complete remission means that tests, physical exams, and scans show that all signs of your cancer are gone. Some doctors also refer to complete remission as no evidence of disease. That doesn’t mean you are cured but you will be monitored over 5 to 10 years .
Progressive/Refractory: If the cancer grows larger or spreads while the patient is being treated for the original lymphoma, it is called progressive disease. This is also called refractory NHL.
Recurrent/Relapsed: Recurrent lymphoma is lymphoma that has come back after treatment. It may return in the area where it first started or in another part of the body. Recurrence may occur shortly after the first treatment or years later. If there is a recurrence, the cancer may need to be staged again (called re-staging) using the system above. This is also called relapsed NHL.
But this article is about Be Here Now and Andy. Some of the documentary is confusing as they did not fully explain the procedures, but this is only my view as I would have liked to see the drugs used been named and a better explanation as to why Andy could not undergo a Stem Cell Transplant as it would appear that he did have a successful harvest. I felt that the way the production company ended this documentary was emphatic.
But how does all this relate to me as a fellow victim of Lymphoma. I was first diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma Stage 4 multi site + Liver, Lungs and later throat. Andy was diagnosed with Stage 2 Non Hodgkins Lymphoma (This is what was released in the News however at the start of the documentary Andy mentioned he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Non Hodgkins – its difficult to judge if this was a relapse stage or an original prognoses). We both managed to beat Lymphoma with the first round Chemotherapy and enter remission. Where we became the same is at the relapse stage. Both of us were re-diagnosed with Stage IV Non Hodgkins Lymphoma reoccurring aggressive and progressive, we both required emergency rescue treatment with life ending prognoses. The reactions to Chemotherapy drugs were different for us, I have stated throughout my blogs that my body can accept massive levels of hard Chemotherapy drugs with little side effects, this is rare. Where Andy appeared to have been stopped doing a SCT is not clear in the documentary as he had appeared to have produced a Stem cell harvest but scans revealed a further spread of the cancer regions, I am left to believe that the oncology team decided not to go ahead with a Stem Cell Transplant because the procedure would have killed him. I had Radiotherapy following first line Chemo where Andy had it as a last resort following the attempts for a Stem Cell Transplant. I need to make a further note here that preparing for a harvest is only one step towards an SCT, preparing for the cell harvest means high doses of chemotherapy to basically “wash” your blood and bone marrow. Preparing after the harvest for the actual transplant means undergoing the most extreme levels of chemotherapy known to medical science, the chances of survival are still been measured by the World Cancer Association and it could be 3 years before we see the stats. So for self donors this means having two separate high dose chemotherapy procedures over a course of 4 months.
Andy’s alternative treatment ‘s including acupuncture are not something that I ever tried but I had considered them. I did try alternative medicine which rapidly showed that they were not working. Andy seemed to have great belief in alternative medicine but when they appeared not to work he returned to medical intervention with Chemotherapy.
To conclude this blog. I could feel this brave mans physical and emotion pain both as a man and a cancer victim. His family in particular the support motivation and drive of his wife Vashti is incredible. Our lives produce everyday hero’s and in certain cases extraordinary hero’s Andy & Vashti Whitfield are and will always be Extraordinary Hero’s
Haka For Andy by the cast of Spartacus
Rest in Peace Andy Whitfield (1971 to 2011) may your name be spoken for all eternity as a Hero of Hero’s
Images and videos courtesy of http://andywhitfield.ausxip.com
Donations to the Andy Whitfield Trust: http://andywhitfield.ausxip.com/trustfund.html
As a footnote: I did try to contact the Whitfield family to ask permission to use the photos included here.