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‘I wasn’t going to be scared of this’: Firefighter beat cancer twice, now waits for baby girl’s arrival

March 26, 2018

May 19 was the worst day of Nick Howe’s life.

Worse, even, than the day the summer before when he was diagnosed with cancer. Because in May 2017, Howe learned that his lymphoma had returned. And this time, the disease was more aggressive.

The first time, Howe, a 33-year-old firefighter at Eppley Airfield, was winding down at work one night when he ran his hand along his neck. He paused as he felt a lump.

Doctors at first thought it was an infection. But Howe’s neck kept swelling, just below his jaw line. And he noticed the lumps spreading.

“Anywhere I touched on my body, I felt lumps,” he said. “I was scared to touch my body because I was finding them overnight.”

Biopsies came back inconclusive, but doctors suspected lymphoma. A later scan showed the disease all over the Omaha man’s body.

“It just lit up like I ran through a field of lymphoma,” Howe said. “It lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Howe isn’t new to cancer. His uncle died from colon cancer. His mother was diagnosed in October with pancreatic cancer. And his father died of lymphoma when Howe was 22.

Howe said his father stayed positive and sheltered him from seeing the worst of the disease.

“He really protected my innocence,” Howe said. “He never made me worry, ever. He just went through it.”

After Howe’s first diagnosis, doctors started him with chemotherapy for five months. The lumps started shrinking, his energy was up and his pain was going away. But scans showed that the disease was still there, so Howe underwent additional treatments for another month until he had a clean scan.

But on May 19, 2017 — five months after Howe thought that he was past the cancer — he went back to the hospital for another scan. A spot showed up on Howe’s chest.

Howe found support from his work family. Some helped him with household chores, like raking leaves from his five trees in the fall. But more often than not, they forgot that he had cancer.

“It’s all how you carry yourself,” Howe said. “I wasn’t going to be scared of this. Yes, it’s happening, but I’m just going one day at a time.”

The second time around, doctors treated Howe with chemotherapy and experimental drugs. Nothing worked. The cancer masses grew and spread across his chest cavity.

He had two options: a stem cell transplant from a donor or a new therapy being used in a clinical trial, said his oncologist, Dr. Philip Bierman of Nebraska Medicine. Howe opted for the trial. The new therapy, known as CAR-T, was approved last fall by the Food and Drug Administration. It removed Howe’s immune cells from his body. Then they were modified to recognize and attack the cancer.

“He wanted to try anything that had any chance it could help,” Bierman said. “I couldn’t ask for a better patient. He never complained.”

Because Howe didn’t have any lumps this time, he couldn’t tell whether the treatment was working.

But his first scans, about a month after the CAR-T treatment, showed him clear of cancer. He’s been in remission since November.

“It’s a pretty incredible feeling,” Howe said. “That’s quite the benchmark to achieve.”

May 19 might hold the title of Howe’s worst day for only a few more weeks. On that date this year, he and his wife, Rachel, are expecting their first child — a girl.