Donnell Hall is a 52-year-old husband, father, brother, son, and friend who resides on the Southwest side of Chicago. A former college basketball player, Donnell’s athletic genes were passed down to his 15-year-old son, who plays baseball and football for a local high school. When he is not busy cheering on his son at sporting events, Donnell spends his time running a print shop and hosting family gatherings and holidays. Otherwise healthy with no family history of cancer or any other disease, Donnell, the “glue” of his family, had his world shaken when he received a very rare cancer diagnosis in early 2016.
In December 2015, Donnell has been experiencing difficulty swallowing and catching his breath when he decided to make an appointment with his primary care provider. After performing a series of initial tests, Donnell was referred to an academic medical center in Chicago where his greatest fear was confirmed in February 2016: Cancer.
Malignant Metastatic Paraganglioma (PGL): Three words that neither Donnell nor his healthcare team had heard before. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), PGLs are rare chromaffin cell tumors. In 2002, an estimated incidence of malignant paraganglioma in the United States was 93 cases per 400 million people. Diagnosis is a challenge because patients do not present with characteristic signs and symptoms. Consequentially, in up to about 10 percent of patients, including Donnell’s case, metastases are already present at diagnosis of PGL. If left untreated, the prognosis is poor.
After a two-week hospital stay, providers at the medical center began to discuss Hospice and Palliative Care options with Donnell and informed him that he may not have much time left.
“This was the most difficult conversation I ever had in my life,” said Hall. “I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I was not ready. As far as I was concerned, my fight had just begun and I was determined to fight for my life.”
It was at this time that Donnell’s primary care provider referred him to M. Bassel Atassi, M.D., hematologist/oncologist and internal medicine physician at LCMH, who was willing and ready to lead Donnell in his fight.
“Dr. Atassi wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Hall. “He is my guardian angel and the reason I am here today.”
Because this rare form of cancer was new to Dr. Atassi as well, Donnell’s treatments were determined one appointment at a time. It was found that the cancer originated in Donnell’s chest. Over the course of a year, Donnell underwent local radiation to the main cancer mass, two targeted radiation liver-directed Radioembolization treatments, and 12 chemotherapy treatments. As of April 2017, CT and PET scans showed that the metastasis was, in fact, shrinking – with no new growths.
In addition to Dr. Atassi, other members of Donnell’s healthcare team at LCMH include: Julia Choo, M.D., radiation oncologist; Don Martinez, M.D., interventional radiologist; and Hamid Nazeer, D.O., interventional radiologist.
“I truly accredit our entire team for Donnell’s success story,” said Dr. Atassi. “None of us ever had encountered a patient with this type of cancer, but we all came together as collaborating physicians to create a customized treatment plan and ultimately save Donnell’s life.”
Today, Donnell is grateful just to be alive. During treatment, he made the decision to close his print shop – a difficult decision, but one that has helped him to slow down and enjoy life. In early April 2017, Donnell and his family celebrated his overcoming cancer by going on a cruise.
“Before this diagnosis, I was one busy man… constantly on-the-go and rushing through life. Now, I just live life as I can. I take time to hear the birds.” said Hall.
“The personalized care that I have received at the Cancer Center at LCMH has been indescribable and every person I have encountered has made me feel special and important. Little Company of Mary is like family to me,” said Hall. “I am most grateful to my entire healthcare team, but especially to Dr. Atassi. He saved my life.”
To make an appointment at the Cancer Center, call 708.229.6020. To learn more about cancer care at Little Company of Mary Hospital, visit www.lcmcancercare.org.