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Jeff's Story: Surviving and Thriving

Jeff Bender Jeff Bender is the perfect example of an old John Wayne quote: “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” As a long-term survivor of kidney cancer, the 64-year-old is also one of the lucky ones. He credits his survival to his wife’s persistence in finding the right doctor and to Robert J. Amato, D.O., chief of oncology at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and professor and director of the division of Oncology at the John P. and Kathrine G. McGovern Medical School in Houston.

An avid runner, Bender was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in 1994. “One day I came in from a run and went to the bathroom,” he recalls. “I urinated a lot of blood with clots, which was very frightening.”

The couple made an appointment with a urologist near their home in The Woodlands, and Bender had his first surgery in 1995, a complete nephrectomy of the right kidney. But the tumor had metastasized. In 1998 cancer reappeared in his left adrenal gland, which was removed by the same surgeon.

“From the beginning Jeff had a bit of a head-in-the-sand attitude,” says Jenny Bender, who has known her husband since high school. “I was immediately on the Internet looking for the doctor with the best reputation for treating kidney cancer, and was pushing Jeff to find someone downtown at the Texas Medical Center who was doing research on renal cell carcinoma.”

By the time cancer reappeared in Bender’s right adrenal gland in 2000, she had found Dr. Robert Amato, one of the world’s leading experts in the treatment of genitourinary cancer. The author of an extensive list of publications, he has served as principal or co-principal investigator in more than 45 clinical trials. His current research focuses on molecular-targeted therapeutics to halt the progression of metastatic kidney and prostate cancers and the further development of immunotherapies with a primary focus on vaccine and immune therapy.

“Dr. Amato didn’t even blink. He knew exactly what it was when he saw my scans,” Bender says. “He removed my right adrenal in March 2000 and started me on chemotherapy.”

In the 15 years that followed, Bender has been treated with sorafenib and everolimus and is now taking sunitinib malate, an oral medication designed to block tumor cell growth by targeting enzymes on blood vessel cells and tumor cells, some of which are thought to be involved in angiogenesis, the making of blood vessels.

“Jeff is successful in a chronic status,” says Dr. Amato, who now considers the Benders friends. “I do the very best I can to provide my patients with quality care based on their particular needs. Cancer treatment continues to evolve, with more treatment options than ever before, allowing us to take advantage of advances in science and technology to find the most appropriate treatment for each individual.”

Today, Bender walks 30 to 40 miles a week, vacations regularly and sees Dr. Amato quarterly in follow-up. “I’m charging ahead with life,” he says. “We have a great family and great kids, and two grandsons on either side of the country so we’re back and forth between Arizona and Washington, D.C. I never let cancer get me down – well, maybe for a day or two but life is too short so we try to maximize it.”

“Jeff does get anxious before an appointment but then everything is fine and we celebrate and move ahead,” Jenny Bender says. “We’re happy to be with a doctor who’s doing amazing research and always has a solution and a next step.”

“Cancer is not a wonderful thing to go through but having a great doctor makes all the difference in the world,” Bender says. “Dr. Amato could tell me he’s moving to Mars and I’d move there with him.”