As a work planner at Exelon’s Dresden Generating Station, 58-year-old George Winke often worked long 12-hour shifts six to seven days a week. It was during his time on the job that he began to notice discomfort while urinating. But, the New Lenox resident chalked it up to the copious amounts of coffee he consumed and adjusted his intake, which appeared to solve the problem.
Four months later, in March 2014, Winke saw blood in his urine and knew something still wasn’t right. What he didn’t know at the time is he had a golf ball-sized tumor in his bladder. One month later, Winke got a diagnosis of clinical stage II/III high-grade muscle invasive bladder cancer, meaning the cancer had spread beyond the inner lining of the bladder.
“I don’t think anyone could ever prepare for getting the word that someone’s been diagnosed with cancer,” Winke said. “It really is shattering, and it can make someone so vulnerable. But, once you have a chance to really wrap your head around it and start thinking more logically and constructively, you can put together a plan of attack.”
His local urology team wanted to perform surgery right away, and recommended removal of the bladder and the placement of an external urostomy bag. But, Winke and his wife, Dawn, decided to get a second opinion, and that is when they discovered the University of Chicago Medicine. Based on Mrs. Winke’s research and recommendations from friends, they scheduled appointments with Peter O’Donnell, MD, assistant professor of medicine, and Gary Steinberg, MD, Bruce and Beth White Family Professor of Surgery.
Steinberg has served as chairman of the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network’s (BCAN) Scientific Advisory Board for the past six and a half years, and is passionate about raising awareness about the disease.
“There is a relative reluctance of people to speak about their bladder cancer,” he said. “Women will very freely talk about breast cancer; men will talk about prostate cancer; women and men will talk about colon cancer and lung cancer. Believe it or not, bladder cancer is the fourth most common cancer among men in the United States.”
An innovative alternative
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), nearly 77,000 new cases of bladder cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, and 16,390 people die from the disease annually.
Winke was impressed with how transparent and thorough his first appointments at UChicago were, and decided he had come to the right place. In addition, Dr. Steinberg offered an alternative surgical option that would allow him to maintain urinary function called an orthotopic neobladder.
This innovative reconstructive surgery involves removing the patient’s cancerous bladder, and replacing it with a new bladder constructed out of a portion of the patient’s small intestine. Steinberg shapes the small intestine into a sphere, which is placed in the location of the old bladder and attached to the urethra in order to restore urinary continence. An early adopter and a leader in the field, Steinberg has been performing continent urinary diversion surgeries since the late 1980s.
In order to prepare for the surgery, Winke underwent three cycles of neoadjuvant chemotherapy in order to shrink the tumor. Steinberg then removed his bladder, prostate and 26 lymph nodes before placing the neobladder. Winke also underwent adjuvant chemotherapy post-surgery to eliminate any remaining microscopic metastatic disease. He was able to have chemo treatments at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center at Silver Cross Hospital in his hometown of New Lenox, where he still goes for follow-up visits every six months.
In the two years since his surgery, Winke has had a few complications including a small outpatient procedure called a direct visual internal urethrotomy to repair a narrowed section (stricture) of the urethra. But, he was determined to bounce back stronger than ever.
He credits his sense of humor and glass-half-full attitude with helping him clear each hurdle. Winke said he also couldn’t have made it through without the help and love of his family, friends and wife. “My devoted and wonderful wife is the only way I was actually able to get through all of this,” he said. “She has done so much for me – from the first day of warning signs to the last day of chemotherapy.”
A new lease on life
Since his diagnosis, George has been an active participant in the AMP UP! Chicago BCAN awareness walk and hopes to help out at this year’s event in Maggie Daley Park on May 21. This year, Steinberg is serving as captain of the Comprehensive Cancer Center’s team.
“I think I can confidently say I’m out of the woods now,” said Winke, who is now retired. “There are so many out there who just found out that they’re diagnosed, and it is very satisfying to know that I can help others out.”
The UChicago urologic team continues to work toward new and better treatments for bladder cancer, including research aimed at understanding the genomic basis of bladder cancer, and clinical trials of new immunotherapies. Steinberg and his team are committed to breaking through research barriers while raising awareness.
“George is a patient who has gotten state-of-the-art, comprehensive, multidisciplinary care and he’s doing great,” said Steinberg. “I think he recognizes he’s got a new lease on life, and each day I think is valuable to him. But, it’s still a long haul for all of the other bladder cancer patients. It can be an incredibly devastating and life-threatening disease. But, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
George Winke would like to thank Nisha Kumar, Victoria Moore and the rest of Dr. Steinberg’s dedicated staff, who were instrumental in his recovery.