Denny Bixby: Surviving the Odds

Three and a half years ago, the staff and board of The Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation bid a fond farewell to colleague and director of development Sally Dadmun Bixby. After calling Nashville their home for nearly 18 years, Sally and her husband Denny decided to move back to Denny’s hometown of Portland, Oregon. Not only were they anticipating the birth of their first grandson in Portland, they were anxious to move back to be near family. In the prior year, Denny had been diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, a daunting diagnosis that, understandably so, had forced them to carefully consider how they wanted to spend their time.

Denny’s story with cancer began in 1999 in Nashville with a dark mole on his back that, when removed by a dermatologist, proved to be melanoma. Once clear margins were established (meaning there were no bad cells in the surrounding tissue), the melanoma became a somewhat distant memory. Then four and a half years later, Denny discovered a small lump on his right side. Although he was advised to watch and wait, another lump soon followed under his right arm and Denny went for medical consultation. Surgeries to remove the masses pointed to the stage IV melanoma that immediately began dictating Denny’s life. He quickly learned the harsh odds for his survival, that he had the worst form of skin cancer, and that his type of cancer was one that usually doesn’t respond to traditional methods of radiation and chemotherapy. With no clear-cut answer as to what needed to be done or how to proceed, Denny formed the strongest support team available to him: his wife Sally and his sister Linda. Together, with great determination and focus, they researched and met with surgeons, oncologists and melanoma research specialists in Nashville and across the country. Denny calls their immediate access to the caring support and sources of information at TMPCF “an unbelievable stroke of good fortune.”
Denny says, “I had to develop my mental strategy. I was relatively young at 54, very healthy other than having cancer, and had a strong will to live. I believed that I was as prepared physically, mentally and spiritually and as good a candidate for overcoming cancer as anyone could be.”

Denny underwent surgery and focused radiation and hyperthermia. He consulted with a Chinese physician for acupuncture to strengthen his immune system, took prescribed herbs, and embraced a diet loaded with antioxidants. Within a few short months, rejoicing in the news that he had no evidence of disease, Denny and Sally knew that the time was also right for making that move back to Portland to be closer to family. However, the relief was brief because within two months of his move in the fall of 2005, his scans were again positive for melanoma. Denny’s next step towards survival, this time in Portland where studies for treating late-stage melanoma with bio-agents had been conducted for 15 years, was inhospital treatments of Interleukin. Interleukin ramps up the immune system. At that point in Denny’s treatment, Interleukin was partially successful about 17% of the time and completely successful 5% of the time. With a mantra of “why shouldn’t I be in that small group of people for whom the treatment works” and believing that with his whole being, Denny opted for in-hospital stays for three courses of treatment that spanned several months.

Denny had a complete response to the Interleukin and has just passed the five-year mark since his diagnosis, which cancer survivors know is a critical milestone in survivorship. Additionally, statistics are that melanoma only recurs 1%–2% of the time in patients like Denny who experience a complete response to Interleukin. Denny attributes his near-miraculous recovery to not allowing hopelessness to overcome him, assembling his support team, taking swift and aggressive action to navigate his diagnosis and treatment, considering the benefits of both Western and Eastern medicine, practicing positive thought and prayer, and embracing healthy habits. He’s not resting on his laurels though—he continues to be watchful for new occurrences, sees a dermatologist routinely, and wears sun-protective clothing and 50 SPF sunblock (particularly while fly-fishing or during those beloved winter vacations on the Yucatan Peninsula). Denny also attributes his positive prognosis to sheer good luck, but luck which he helped make possible through his thoughtful approach to coping with an incomprehensible diagnosis. Today Denny continues to play music, and he and Sally spend lots of time with their two grandchildren and anticipate the arrival of another grandchild this year.