Living to Make a Difference: Mike Katz (Part Two)

Writer Greg Brozeit reminds us that any myeloma patient that has ever taken dexamethasone owes Mike Katz a heartfelt “Thank you!”

Living to Make a Difference: Mike Katz (Part Two)

By Greg Brozeit

I was a witness to the second great clinical achievement for which Mike was largely responsible. Every year at the IMF’s annual gathering of support group leaders, Mike organized a call between patients and members of the ECOG myeloma clinical trials leaders. One year the predominant subject was the drug lenalidomide, which was then the most promising new treatment for myeloma.

Lenalidomide was given in combination with dexamethasone (dex), a long-used steroid with anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits that enhances the effects of certain drugs. But this comes with unpleasant side effects: irritability, sleeplessness, restlessness and sometimes inducing aggressive behavior. In the clinical trial they were discussing, the protocol called for high levels of dex, the doctors reasoning this would boost the effectiveness of lenalidomide.

Mike Katz head shotI can still hear Mike’s words clearly when I visualize him speaking to them over the conference call, “It’s all well and fine for you guys to prescribe such high levels of dex. But speaking as a patient who has taken it, is there any way you could design another arm comparing it to lower doses of dex?” After a bit of discussion, Vincent Rajkumar, the lead investigator in the trial said, “Sure Mike, we can try that.”

Fast forward less than a year later: after comparing the two parts of the trial, they found that patients with less dex had dramatically higher rates of survival and far less side effects. In fact, Dr. Rajkumar admitted this was unprecedented in his experience. The part of the trial with high dex was stopped and all patients were put on the low dex protocol.

The results of this trial have resonated not just in myeloma, but throughout the world of cancer treatment. Dex is still widely used, but less of it more often than not leads to better results. More importantly, it leads to a better quality of life for patients and, thankfully, for their caregivers. Again, it was Mike’s experience as a patient as well as a vocal, educated patient advocate that made the difference for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cancer patients throughout the world.

Last year the American Society of Clinical Oncology, whose annual meeting is the world’s largest gathering of cancer physicians and researchers, presented Mike with its Partners in Progress Award, which recognizes significant achievements of advocates in the service of oncology. I doubt there will ever be a more deserving recipient. But recognition was really not Mike’s thing.

He was more into being a good husband and father (uncle, cousin, brother-in-law, and later proud father-in-law and doting grandfather), an active board member of his synagogue, addictive devotee and patron of opera—especially Verdi—and his work. It was a delicate balancing act.

Mike was a master of compartmentalization. He let few people who were parts of one of his life’s roles—professional, personal, religious, patient, advocate—see the other pieces. (My wife Romi, the IMF’s first fundraiser, remembers a vivid anecdote that demonstrates the depth of this: Once while she was working with Mike over the phone fixing some kinks in the new IMF website, she noticed some noise in the background and asked what he was doing. He replied that it was intermission of an opera performance he was attending with his mother. He had some time to work on the problem. He would just tell his mother that he had to talk to a client.)

This all became even more obvious to me when I attended Mike’s memorial service and burial yesterday. As I listened, I realized how Mike was able to live a full life and still only show those around him the segments he chose. I knew that he had faith. I just never realized how deep it was. I know that he loved his community. I just never realized that he took as much time and effort giving back to his neighbors as he did the myeloma community.

And I knew how much he loved his family. I just never realized how extended it was and how he valued every member, no matter how “distantly” related. They were not distant to him. As we listened to the speakers provide a complete picture of Mike’s life, all of us realized how the sum of the parts of his life added up to an unbelievable mosaic of ethical consistency.

What began as a day of overwhelming sorrow developed into a joyous celebration of Mike’s relationships with the people he put at the center of his life. I think Mike would have liked that. The profound, touching act of his sons lowering his pine casket into the ground completed what Mike had been preparing for his entire life: the passage of responsibility to the next generation. And as many of us followed his sons in filling the grave with soil, we all became part of an ancient cycle that reaffirmed our duties to each other. I’m sure Mike understood that better than any of us.

It can be trite to observe that someone made a difference. But Mike made so many. If they were only for the myeloma community—a community that he was integral in building—that alone would have been quite a legacy.

Perhaps the best way to sum up how I think about Mike are found in the words of Isaiah Berlin, the great historian of ideas, explaining the world view of 19th century Russian intellectual Alexander Herzen:

“Why does a singer sing? Merely in order that, when he has stopped singing, his song might be remembered, so that the pleasure that his song has given may awaken a longing for that which cannot be recovered? No. This is a false and purblind and shallow view of life. The purpose of the singer is to sing. And the purpose of life is to live it.”

When faced with a death sentence, Mike turned it into a determination to live on his terms. Those terms included all of us.

Rest in peace, Mike.

You can follow Greg on Twitter: @GregBrozeit or Linkedin:

Feel good and keep smiling!  Pat

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