Time out with T.O. - Surviving the Big C

by Tom O'Connor, UNMC strategic communications (retired) | September 10, 2020

Image with caption: Bill Penry, at right, and son Casey (photo by Dimitry Konstantinov)

Bill Penry, at right, and son Casey (photo by Dimitry Konstantinov)

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Bill Penry with grandson Finley

It came through as a reminder on Facebook -- Bill Penry is celebrating his birthday today.

It brought a big smile to my face.

It's special because Bill is the ultimate cancer survivor. And, better yet, he's truly a great human being.

Over my 32 years of doing media relations for UNMC, Bill was one of the people we loved to trot out to the media to show how awesome the medical center was in taking care of people with cancer.

His story is amazing. It starts in 1993 when a golf ball-sized lump appeared on his neck. His Creighton Prep High School classmate and family physician, Steve Titus, MD, suspected it might be lymphoma. He referred him to a specialist, who wound up being David Bouda, MD, also a Creighton Prep classmate.

The diagnosis was non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Penry is especially grateful that Dr. Bouda referred his case to UNMC/Nebraska Medicine, and he became the patient of James Armitage, MD.

To say it was a tough go is truly an understatement.

First, he failed the standard therapy of chemotherapy and radiation. Next, he underwent an autologous bone marrow transplant in which he was given his own stem cells. He relapsed again.

His only option left was an allogeneic transplant in which he would receive healthy stem cells from a donor. Thankfully, his younger brother, Patrick, was able to donate his stem cells.

Much to everyone's surprise, it worked.

"Bill's story is a miracle," Dr. Armitage said. "He was not a good candidate for an allogeneic transplant. The odds of him surviving the transplant were less than we like.

"I work for my patients -- not them for me. Bill just said, 'I know it is going to work.' We decided to do it. It couldn't have gone better. He never even got graph vs. host disease, which can be a very dangerous complication with an allogeneic transplant."

Meanwhile, Bill went through hell. He lost 78 pounds on his first transplant and 63 pounds on the second transplant.

But, one thing never changed -- his positive attitude.

One nurse told him, "Your attitude is phenomenal. You cheer people up."

"I'm a candid person," Penry said. "I don't treat doctors as demigods or deity, but as people. On the first day, Dr. Armitage said, 'Call me Jim.' He's the most humble person I've ever seen."

The patient and physician developed a special relationship.

Penry ran three businesses and traveled extensively along with his wife, Jean.

"Every time Bill would travel, he would send me a postcard saying something like it had been 2,918 days -- or whatever it was -- since my transplant," Dr. Armitage said.

"He's a wonderful person -- that's what I love about this job. It allows me to make friends with extraordinary people like Bill."

After Dr. Armitage was selected as king of Aksarben in 1998, Penry started calling him "Rex" on his postcards. The Penrys and Armitages became occasional dinner couples.

Dr. Armitage had Penry speak at a University of Nebraska Foundation event. He introduced him as a "miracle." Penry's first words to the crowd were, "Did he say 'miracle?' He's been telling me, 'superior doctoring skills' for the past three years."

Penry turned 74 on Aug. 10 -- more than 27 years after his cancer diagnosis.

Thanks to the medical center, he has been able to celebrate 53 anniversaries with Jean, and -- four months ago -- they welcomed their first grandchild, Finley, to the world. The Penrys even anonymously donated a wooden bust to the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center.

Through it all, Penry created a secret word -- LOBTALEM -- to represent his feelings toward beating the Big C.

It stands for, "Living on borrowed time and loving every moment."

Happy birthday, Bill, and many happy returns.

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Nancy Veale
September 16, 2020 at 7:52 AM

Just now reading this story Bill. I’ll share this with my family. You are such an example of optimism for others♥️Much love.

Carol Russell
September 10, 2020 at 12:25 PM

Great story Bill!! Nice pics of you and your family. Stay safe!! Carol Russell

donny suh
September 10, 2020 at 10:12 AM

Great story! Very proud of our UNMC team!