By Elyse Glickman
A Philadelphia actor transplanted to Los Angeles, where he is diagnosed with leukemia, finds a bone marrow donor in his hometown.
Philadelphia-born Robert Trebor, 61, used his gift of gab and interest in human nature to achieve an enduring acting career spanning three decades.
Then, a precautionary blood test leading to the unexpected diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia in 2012 nearly cut the Los Angeles resident’s career — and life —short — and ultimately put him in touch with a donor back home from Drexel University.
Looking back at his diagnosis, he eschews self-pity. “When things were at the worst, I realized I had led a rich, lucky life,” Trebor recalls.
“From the woman I chose to spend my life with, to the adventures I had through my acting, to being sent all over the world to sign autographs in London, Amsterdam and Germany, I could look back at my life and know it was one well spent.”
From breakthrough “bad guy” roles — as Son of Sam, opposite Martin Sheen in the CBS 1985 film Out of the Darkness and John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up the following year — to the scheming-but-likable sidekick Salmoneus on TV’s Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess to his current work with the Jewish Women’s Theatre in Los Angeles, Trebor has relied on his instincts and quick wit to make a successful living.
Ironically, it was during the course of a 2012 Jewish Women’s Theatre production, The Moment You Knew, when Trebor was handed a real-life role nobody would audition for — cancer patient. The diagnosis stirred up a lot of emotion and memories.
“One night in January 1961, I came downstairs and found my mom, dad and sister, Beverly, all crying,” he recalls. They had just found out a friend had died of cancer. “It was the first time I heard about leukemia,” says Trebor.
His familiarity with leukemia became more personal during the run of The Moment You Knew.
“When I breathed, I had a little upper chest pain, and my feet and thighs were feeling heavier than usual,” Trebor explains.
By the time he got home from testing at the hospital, he recalls, “I found a message from the emergency room informing me I needed to go in right away to discuss the results of my blood test.”
Trebor’s doctors explained his hemoglobin level was 5.5, while normal levels range from 14-18; organs begin shutting down at the 4.8 level.
“There’s no screening test for leukemia as there is with breast or colon cancer, so we do not have a test that can diagnose it early,” says Dr. Ricardo Spielberger, Trebor’s physician at the Kaiser Permanente Bone Marrow Transplant Clinic in Los Angeles.
“The main advice I give patients is to stay informed and be proactive in their treatments the way Mr. Trebor has been.”
Treatment for acute myeloid leukemia involves a bone marrow transplant from a matching donor, and when Trebor entered his first remission after being treated by doctors on the eve of the High Holidays in 2012, he asked his doctors if he could delay the transplant to go to services and get blessed during Yom Kippur. Though a donor was lined up, his doctors felt it would be OK for him to take a little time off, he recalls.
However, shortly thereafter, he relapsed and was told on top of everything else, a mutation that was part of his original diagnosis had worsened. His prospects seemed grim.
An experimental protocol was administered by Kaiser in L.A. Trebor underwent five kinds of chemo plus 10,000 mg of statin drugs. By late December, he was ready for the transplant.
Although the original transplant candidate had fallen through, this particular Chanukah proved miraculous: Another match was found, thanks to the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation (www.giftoflife.org) registry.
Trebor would eventually learn a year after the transplant that his donor was Julie (identified only by her first name), a bio-medical engineering student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. On Jan. 7, 2013, Trebor received her precious belated Chanukah gift at Los Angeles’ City of Hope Hospital.
Reached in Philadelphia, Julie, meanwhile, says she donated not only because of the values her parents raised her with, but also her interest in the physiology of the donation process.
“One day, I was walking around campus and noticed there was a booth promoting Gift of Life being set up, and I signed up for the registry then and there, and they swabbed my cheek,” Julie says. “It was understood that a prospective donor could be asked to donate at any time.”
She was surprised that she was contacted just nine months after signing up. Julie stresses that the process is less painful and scary than people may imagine. “There’s a newer method called PBSD (Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Donation), where the medical staff running the procedure starts you off on medicine that causes your body to overproduce stem cells so they leak out of your bones and into your circulatory system,” she explains.
The next day, she recalls, “I went back to feeling perfectly normal.”
While donors and recipients have to wait a year before they are allowed to connect, Julie was pleased not only to learn where her bone marrow went, but also that she had saved another life.
Tears well up in Trebor’s eyes when discussing the moment he realized his life was saved by a fellow Philadelphian. The two have talked and are in the process of setting up a meeting.
However, his post-transplant recovery is part of a much greater mosaic of progress being made in the fight against leukemia. After the transplant, Trebor became one of 50 people in the country taking part in a two-year clinical trial that started in March 2013 for patients who relapsed before a transplant yet ultimately recovered enough to have one.
“In the next few years, we will see treatments that are more focused on the molecular changes occurring” in each individual’s leukemia and how to target them more specifically, says Spielberger.
“We are aiming for a more targeted approach with less toxicity and improved results.”
As for Trebor, he is not just back in the swing of acting, but is also penning a book about his career (working title: They Pay You for That?). Taking nothing for granted, he advises others to keep busy laughing no matter how dark things seem.
“You need to laugh at ironies, such as my putting off the transplant to observe Yom Kippur,” he says.
“They say God is a standup comedian performing for an audience afraid to laugh. Now, I have to believe that.”
Pioneering Bone Marrow Transplant
Philadelphia is taking a leading role in options for those in need of bone marrow transplants from leukemia and other diseases.
One such leader is located in the Northeast: The Fox Chase Cancer Center.
Dr. Henry Fung, director of the center’s Hematologic Oncology Treatment Team and Bone Marrow Transplant Program, reports that one major breakthrough for transplant-based treatment at his hospital is the Haplo-Identical Transplant.
The procedure involves a bone marrow transplant that has been successful in helping patients of cancers and blood disorders.
Rather than wiping out a patient’s immune system before transplanting donor bone marrow, doctors administer just enough chemotherapy to suppress the immune system.
Fung adds that the effects are milder.
“At Fox Chase, we have multiple ongoing clinical trials in an attempt to improve the outcomes for patients with leukemia” and other diseases necessitating transplants.
Continues Fung: “Historically we have been mostly using cytotoxic chemotherapy targeting the DNA for (leukemia) patients. Now, there is increased knowledge that not only genetic changes” in cells “lead to cancer, but the epigenetic changes are also very important.”
(Epigenetics is the study of gene expression and changes in its activity not caused by changes in the DNA sequence.)
According to Fung, scientists have identified an epigenetic process that “silences” key genes that permit cancer to exist and flourish.
“The research team at Fox Chase Cancer Center is currently studying a second-generation epigenetic therapy,” he says. “With targeted therapy that has minimal toxicity to the marrow, the patient will be more likely to tolerate the therapy post-transplant and improve the overall success of the transplant, reducing the possibility of relapse and complications.”
Elyse Glickman is a health and travel writer based on the West Coast. This article originally appeared in the special section, “Fighting Cancer.”