By: Dale King Contributing Writer
Members of the cancer-fighting medical staff from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston visit Palm Beach County each year to share their hopes, findings and ongoing achievements with an audience filled mainly with locals concerned about their personal struggles with the disease or those of relatives.
This year, the doctors yielded the opening speaking spot to a young woman from Palm Beach Gardens who told a heart-wrenching tale that hushed the crowd in the conference room of the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach. It was literally a story of life and death, about a Boca Raton family – her family — that faced the possible loss of a loving, apparently healthy husband and father to a rare form of cancer just 15 years after he had beaten another potentially lethal type of the virulent sickness.
With tears occasionally interrupting her address, Amanda Pollok told how a horrific cancer, discovered totally by accident, threatened to end the life of her 69-year-old father, Alan Merkur, the active, fit and clearly asymptomatic husband of Sheila Merkur and father of a son and daughter, both attorneys.
“My world was turned upside down and sideways the day doctors at my father’s local hospital told him they saw something unidentifiable in his abdomen that could be an infectious disease but was, more likely, cancerous,” Amanda told the group during the meeting in March. “My family embarked on a story of fear, courage, medical excellence and a good dose of what I like to call ‘my lucky stars.’”
The irony was – Alan Merkur had beaten cancer before. Surgery 15 years earlier cured a sarcoma that threatened to take a leg – or his life. But the operation worked and “cancer was in the past for him” said Amanda. “He had beaten it. We had all relaxed. And then it attacked again. New cancer type. New cancer location. Same terrible disease.”
Alan, who worked in commercial real estate development and acquisition for Equity One, decided to get a kidney checkup as his two brothers had health issues there. His kidneys were clear, she said, “But, a full body scan showed something unrelated going on in his abdomen. And, so our nightmare began.”
Further tests at various hospitals “identified a rare cancer – appendiceal adenocarcinoma — that had spread to other areas of the abdomen. We found and secured appointments with whatever doctors we could find who had meaningful experience with this diagnosis.”
One of those, she said, was Dr. Paul Mansfield at MD Anderson. “After a nationwide/whirlwind tour, my dad had a big decision to make. Of the five doctors we had visited, none had given us the same recommendation.”
By now, Amanda had given up her law practice “and joined the rest of my family in finding the right care. This was not so easy. Some [doctors] were close to each other [in treatment suggestions] and some were drastically different.”
“Dr. Mansfield proposed a procedure called HIPEC which involved a lengthy surgery followed by pouring hot chemotherapy into my father’s abdomen. The chemotherapy would then be sucked out using a bypass machine. The literature refers to this procedure as the ‘Mother of All Surgeries.’ It was by far the most aggressive and risky approach offered to us. But, it also sounded like it had the most chance of success.”
“And, so, over lunch at TooJays down in Boca, my family took an unanimous vote to put our trust and hope and faith in Dr. Mansfield.”
Alan said this doctor put his many personal fears to rest. “This cancer had the makings of something really bad,” he said. “My spirits were bleak. But, honestly, when we made the decision, my comfort level with this guy got better.” He also had consummate faith in his daughter who had “scouted the country” to find him.
“We never looked back” said Amanda. “My dad’s procedure lasted 11 hours. Dr. Mansfield prepared us for every step and every potential outcome. He was calm, smart and understanding. During our first meeting with him, I started to cry. He caringly gave me his handkerchief which I still keep in my bedside table drawer as a source of comfort.”
“My father, ‘a fighter,’ remained in the hospital in Texas for about five weeks. My mother stayed by his side the entire time. She cared for him, cheered him up, fought for him and just loved him.”
“My brother and I traveled back and forth. I had two small kids at home and came up with a four-day home/three-day in Texas schedule.”
“Meanwhile, my dad worked so hard to recover,” said his caring daughter. “He did everything he was told. I have to say, though, that, every time I said goodbye to him to come home to my husband and kids, my heart cried. But, he was in such good care.”
His recovery was long, tough and potentially dire. Amanda said that type of cancer returns in 50 percent of cases. She could not bring herself to go to the hospital for her father’s medical scans.
“Anyway, the scans went well. Thank you, lucky stars. After a while, they were switched to every six months.”
And Amanda’s mom added a bit of good news. “Since April of 2018, after Alan’s fifth year out from surgery, the scans have been switched to once a year.”
After the acute crisis subsided, “Big law was no longer calling my name. I decided to start a company to help other people diagnosed with cancer obtain their best possible outcomes as well. Three years ago, I established a firm that does the research, asks the questions, searches for the trials, and leads my clients to their own ‘Dr. Mansfield.’ It is, by far, the most rewarding job I have ever had.”