Pastor Scott Erdman is using his experiences to encourage and support other cancer patients.
He is believed to be one of the longest-living survivors of these types of tumors, and he has no evidence of residual cancer, says his neurosurgeon, Keith Black, MD, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai.
Now the retired pastor is using his experiences to encourage and support other cancer patients.
While watching a tennis game on TV, Erdman noticed a small lump in his armpit. When it was still there a week later, he mentioned it to an oncologist friend who said the odds of it being anything other than an inflamed lymph node were about 99 to one. It turned out to be melanoma. Doctors removed a tumor and 24 surrounding lymph nodes. Despite the three-year prognosis, Erdman celebrated five years of being cancer-free in 1986.
A month later, doctors discovered a malignant tumor in his gut. They removed it and two years later, removed yet another one.
Then in 1991 – 10 years after his first cancer diagnosis –Erdman started getting headaches. An MRI revealed three brain tumors – the largest the size of an orange. Even worse, all three tumors were located in highly sensitive areas of the brain. Lying on a gurney in the Emergency Department at UCLA Medical Center, Erdman met the young neurosurgeon who would join the fight on his behalf.
Conventional wisdom at the time was to treat the tumors with whole brain radiation. Surgery to remove multiple metastatic tumors in the brain was not recommended, as most doctors felt it was too dangerous and would only cause additional pain and suffering.
But Black objected. Whole brain radiation had great potential to create serious collateral damage and could only offer the patient an additional six months at best. On the other hand, he felt there was a good chance of controlling the tumors in Erdman’s brain with surgery. “We need to do something more radical,” he insisted.
He already had a weapon in mind. Once the tumors were surgically removed, Black would use stereotactic radiation therapy – also known as the XKnife – which was new at the time. This nonsurgical tool directs focused X-ray beams into the brain from a ring around the patient’s skull. Unlike whole brain radiation, these X-rays can be aimed specifically at the tumor. With surgery and the XKnife, Black felt he could give Erdman as much as an extra 18 months. Another doctor disagreed, leaving Erdman to cast the deciding vote. He opted for surgery and the XKnife, saying, “I want a chance for longer survival.”
The surgery and treatments were successful, but the battle wasn’t over. A year later, in 1992, another brain tumor showed up and was treated. In 1994, cancer returned, and Erdman’s left kidney, spleen, part of his pancreas and some lymph nodes were removed.
For several years, Erdman remained cancer-free, only returning annually for MRIs and to see Black, who had moved to Cedars-Sinai and would become chair of the Department of Neurosurgery.
But at Erdman’s 2008 visit –14 years since his last cancer battle – Black said, “Scott, I need you to come look at this.”
As he looked at the images on the monitor, Erdman saw two small lesions and said, “I’m done.”
But Black said, no, they’re very small. “We’ll blast them with the Gamma Knife.”
Once again, Erdman beat the odds. He’s been in remission since 2010 and retired earlier this year after 29 years as associate pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church.
“Now I have more time to focus on encouraging others,” he said. “It’s a miracle I’m alive.”
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