Daniel Burton, his wife Anita and their three daughters have spent a great deal of time in Boston and Chicago and met some of the nation’s leading authorities on mesothelioma over the past year and a half, increasing their knowledge of something they’d not thought much about before.
All that activity has meant some time away from Burton’s job delivering mail in the Hope area, but he is back to walking one of the state’s longest mail routes full time. There would have been no interruption except for being afflicted with this rare type of lung cancer.
Until then, it was a life of fun and fulfillment on balance. The Hope-area native graduated from Hauser High School in 1974, earned an associate degree from Ivy Tech and worked briefly at Essex Castings before joining the U.S. Postal Service’s Hope branch. Along the way, he became a family man, and, to hear his daughters tell it, a father with the utmost sense of dedication.
“He was very involved with everything we did,” daughter Jessica Grismore said. “When we were little, he colored and rode bikes with us. Church was very big in our lives, as was homework.”
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He also dabbled in sports, particularly golf and softball. Years went by and his basic joy increased.
In 2014, a persistent cough spurred him to see his family physician. That doctor prescribed prednisone.
“He’d feel better, then go off the medicine and not feel so good,” wife Anita Burton said.
Daniel Burton was referred to a Columbus pulmonologist who order a bronchoscopy and CT scan in August of that year. On the basis of the results, he prescribed antibiotics for Burton, but the cough didn’t abate. A second scan in December showed fluid between the lung and chest wall.
The local pulmonologist referred Burton to Dr. Anthony Ascioti, a thoracic surgeon at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. Ascioti performed a thorascopy with pleural biopsy and talc pleurodesis. On Jan. 29, 2015, Burton got the call that the results indicated mesothelioma.
Under the care of a Columbus medial oncologist, Burton underwent chemotherapy for three months. A PET scan showed that the cancer had not grown any smaller.
The entire family went into research mode. They called Mary Hesdorffer, a nurse practitioner and executive director of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation. She came up with a list of five doctors in the United States that she thought could meaningfully address Burton’s situation. The medical oncologist was completely supportive of the Burtons getting a second opinion.
The doctor they chose from Hesdorffer’s list was Dr. Raphael Bueno, chief of the thoracic surgery division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a facility with a world-class reputation for the treatment of mesothelioma.
After three days of tests and interviews in Boston, Bueno’s team determined Burton was a candidate for the surgical procedure Bueno would perform.
Daniel and Anita Burton came home briefly and then returned. The surgery was performed May 19. Afterward, Bueno told the family, “The good news is, he survived; the bad news is, I didn’t get it all.”
Burton spent four days in intensive care, another 10 days at the hospital, and then some time in a house across the street where patients stay during therapies. The daughters got to stay in the house with their parents.
“A Brigham and Women’s oncologist recommended a clinical trial in Chicago,” Daniel Burton said. “He said, ‘I think that’s your best bet.’”
After another brief return home, they headed to Chicago. There they met Dr. Hedy Lee Kindler, director of the mesothelioma program at The University of Chicago Medicine. Kindler is one of the nation’s leading researchers of the disease and is known for exploring new treatment options.
“She hugged us and said, ‘Welcome to the family,” Anita Burton said.
The drug she tested on Daniel Burton was Keytruda, the brand name for pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy medicine that had been used for melanoma but was not yet approved for mesothelioma.
Phase one of the trial yielded good results, and Burton is now in phase two. He goes to Chicago every three weeks to get his infusion. He gets a scan every nine weeks.
“The first scan showed a 52-percent reduction in presence,” Anita Burton said. “Since then, we’ve seen a 77 percent reduction.”
This journey necessitated a hiatus in Burton’s work. He was completely off from mid-January 2015 through March 2016. He initially returned on a tapered schedule, but he’s back full-time now.
Just as he was an attentive father, Burton has established a special place in the hearts of his grandchildren.
“Our boys love coming over here for sleepovers,” Jessica Grismore said. “He’s always had a Nerf gun ready in case a war breaks out.”
The episode has made an already-close family closer. The entire crew went to Disney World in Florida in late November 2015. Burton’s older sister and two younger brothers went to Boston to be with him as he convalesced.
This October, Daniel and Anita Burton will attend the International Symposium on Malignant Mesothelioma in Chicago. The event will include presentations by experts, support sessions and opportunities to socialize.
Friends at the post office and at the Burtons’ church, First Christian in Columbus, have been a valuable source of support as well. Daniel Burton senses a divine hand in all those who have been part of his trek: “I’ve seen the goodness of God in all the people involved.”
OCCUPATION: Mail carrier in Hope
FAMILY: Wife, Anita; children, Jessica Grismore, Abby Glasser, Megan McCoy
TYPE OF CANCER: Mesothelioma, diagnosed January 2015
ADVICE: “Pray. That’s why I’m still here.”