By Anne Stanton
Greg Holmes remembers reading a Wall Street Journal article in March
of 2004 with more interest than usual. It concerned a Tulane
University medical student with sino-nasal undifferentiated cancer
(SNUC), an extremely rare disease.
Like most rare diseases, pharmaceutical companies havent pursued a
cure; it would be a multi-million dollar endeavor for little need and
no profit. So the medical student had resorted to growing his own
cancer cells to find a chemo drug that would shrink his tumor. He has
since passed away.
At the time, Holmes himself was having some sinus problems. For
months, he had been unable to breathe or smell through his left
nostril. He had changed his diet, taken antibiotics; nothing worked.
The whole thing annoyed him.
After I read the article about this medical student, I was so sad for
him. He had a rare, super aggressive cancer and he was running out of
time. Here Id been kvetching about my nose. I thought, Greg, thats
nothing. You are so lucky; what is wrong with you?
A few weeks later, Holmes found out what was wrong. He was diagnosed
with Sino-nasal cancer. He not only survived it, he is doing well,
save for an occasionally weeping left eye and a damaged thyroid. (Many
survivors have suffered brain damage, chronic pain, and
Holmes, a psychologist, sums it up: My wife saved my life.
His wife, Katherine Roth, M.D., a family practice physician, is far
more humble. There were a lot of things that saved Gregs life,
including his will to do everything he possibly could. I wonder how
many other people would do that. Would you? His commitment to our
program has been unshakeable for the past five and a half years.
To mark the fifth anniversary of his recovery, Holmes wrote a short
memoir, The Good Fight. The following account was drawn from his
memoir, along with an interview with Holmes and Dr. Roth at the office
building they share on Front Street in Traverse City.
Having exhausted the route of antibiotics, allergy medications and his
internists ideas, Holmes went to an ear, nose and throat doctor, who
took a biopsy of a suspected polyp. A few days later, the doctor
Dr. Roth with the results.
It was April Fools Day, 2004. I was driving near the hospital when
the call came. My daughter, Emerson, was in the back seatI think she
was only three years old, and I dont know if she remembers, but I had
to pull to the side of the road. I was devastated. I just couldnt
believe it and I said, Are you kidding?? He said, he wished that he
After hearing the news, Holmes could think of little else. He had to
decide: would he give up easily or fight? He was driving down Silver
Lake Road to his home on Duck Lake, and decided to stop in at the
Catholic Church, which was unlocked.
I went inside and I dont know if I prayed, but I asked, If there is
a God, and I dont know if there is, but I really, really want to
live. Please help me. I want to live.
Within a week, Holmes went to the University of Michigan Hospital
where he met with a team of doctors. The surgeon told him the tumor
was so advanced and so large that carving a hole out of his head was
out of the question. It was too close to his optic nerve and his brain
stem, Dr. Roth said.
Greg was literally begging them, Please, cant you give me some
hope? He must have asked three or four times, Dr. Roth said.
Finally, an oncologist admitted in this flat voice, Yes, there is
always a chance. I know, as a doctor, that you dont want to give a
patient false hope, but there has to be a balance between that and
giving them no hope whatsoever.
The oncologist met with the couple and proposed a treatment program of
chemotherapy and radiation. Holmes didnt blink an eye. Im going to
do it. I want to do it right away, he said.
Dr. Roth and Holmes agreed to fight fire with fire. Theyd throw
everything into the fight. In addition to chemo and radiation, Dr.
Roth would draw on her 20 years of medical education and intense study
of nutritional and vitamin therapy.
I felt like wed both been preparing for this our whole lives, both
psychologically and medically, Dr. Roth said.
THERE WAS NO ONE ELSE
Chemotherapy works by killing rapidly dividing cells. Those include
cancer cells, of course, but it also includes cells in the bone
marrow, digestive tract and hair follicles. That means side effects: a
lower white blood cell count, inflammation of the digestive tract and
mouth, and hair loss.
Chemo does so much, it can almost kill the person and sometimes it
does. The treatment can be stronger than the person. Dr. Roth said.
Dr. Roth took a multi-faceted approach to rebuild Holmes body as the
cancer broke it down. She worked to strengthen his immune system with
mushroom extracts. She supported his nutrition and detoxication with
high quality protein shakes (whey), probiotics and essential fatty
acids, and fought inflammation with green tea extracts, proteolytic
enzymes, and curcurmin. Probiotics, which naturally occur in
fermented foods such as sauerkraut and yogurt, replace good bacteria
that gets destroyed by antibiotics and chemotherapy. The combination
of all of these helped repair the lining in his mouth and intestines.
Finally, she did energy work in the form of acupuncture and low-level
laser therapy to maintain his energy flow. We know there is a
vibration (also known as QI or prana) in the body. Energy work helps
with stagnation, pain and fatigue, she explained.
Dr. Roth relied specifically on the medical textbook, The Prevention
and Treatment of Cancer with Natural Medicine, by Michael Murray,
written in 2000. It contained detailed recommendations for number and
strength of dosages, along with clinical study citations.
Each day, Dr. Roth prepared for Greg three cocktails full of
nutritional supplements in the form of liquid shakes. She asked her
older son to return from Nepal to help take care of their Emerson, who
had stayed with Dr. Roth and Holmes during their entire three-month
visit in Ann Arbor that summer.
Dr. Roth believed that Holmeslike all cancer patientsneeded a
knowledgeable coach, someone to research, order, and prepare the
complementary nutritional supplements to bolster health. She tried to
find that assistance in Ann Arbor and Traverse City; she even called
the principle researcher in Tulane, but he couldnt help either. So
by default, Dr. Roth became his coach.
I shouldnt have been his doctor, as I was his wife, but we didnt
have anyone else. Other doctors didnt want to take Greg on. Theyd
see his scans and diagnosis, and turned him away. There was no one
Despite the three nutritional shakes each day, Holmes weight dropped
steadily: 165 150 138 129 125. The doctors threatened to
insert a tube feeding if it dropped below 120. So borrowing a page
from the anorexic teens he once treated; he wore jeans, hiking boots,
and heavy shirts every morning as he weighed in.
Despite the shakes and Holmes firm conviction in positive thinking,
he was losing his energy, and even his will to fight. With little
energy left to push back, my psychic dam caved in and the waves of
gloom rushed over me ... The pain in my mouth was unbearable, and the
protein supplement drinks that were my lifeline became impossible to
swallow without first injecting lidocaine, a pain medication in my
mouth through a syringe, he wrote in his memoir.
One night, Dr. Roth drove back to Traverse City, leaving Holmes alone
with his dark thoughts. Maybe it would be for the best if he died, he
thought. He could release Katherine and his daughter from this living
The psychic and physical pain intermingled and built to an
unimaginable crescendo. I reached out in desperation and grabbed the
television remote that was next to me on the sofa, Holmes wrote.
On it was a boxing matchthe same Ali-Foreman fight he had seen in a
documentary years ago. Ali was against the ropes and dropped his
gloves briefly to protect his abdomen. At the same time, Foreman
responded by drilling Ali in his left sinus area.
As blood began to poor out of Alis nose, the same thing was weirdly
happening to Holmes. He took it as an unmistakable omen that just as
Foreman did not beat Ali ,the cancer would not kill himhe would
destroy it! The moment was truly a turning point for him. He carried
his conviction into the last few weeks of chemo and radiation.
As the cisplatin poured into what was left of my veins, I looked at
the infusion pump with an unfamiliar feeling of disdain as I heard
Alis voice echo in my head. Im so tough, I make medicine sick!
SENSE OF SMELL
His first clue that hed beaten the cancer? His toddler daughter had
an accident and he could smell it! He could smell a flower blooming.
Shortly afterward, his MRI still showed a mass in his brain and sinus,
but the fight was still on. He returned to Traverse City with a firm
resolve, taking a daily regimen of 80 to 90 pills. He re-opened his
practice, and started back on the treadmill at the local gym. As he
walked, he clenched his fists and shadowboxed his tumor, right, left,
right, right into oblivion.
I imagined what the other people in the gym must think of me: an odd,
razor thin man with wisps of white hair, violently shaking his fists
at the sky. Whether they had heard the word or not, the bottom line
was obviousI was one very sick man.
Six months passed. It was now fall of 2005 and Holmes went to Munson
for a PET scan. Holmes couldnt tell anything from the radiology
technicians poker face during the scan, but Dr. Roth received a call
the next day from one of her colleagues.
The PET scan revealed the cancerous tumor had not just been stopped
in its tracks, but that there was no evidence of cancer activity at
all! The bizarre premonition that came to me that dark night in the
cottage had proven to be true. The tumor departed just as it
arrived, offering neither explanation nor apology.
During Holmes treatment at U-M, the physicians were frequently
skeptical and even derisive when told of the supplements that Holmes
was taking. One physician remarked, Well, I guess it cant hurt him
-- the worst that can happen is that he will have very expensive
But their remarks left Dr. Roth undaunted. She remains fueled by her
passion to continue to offer hope, energized to further explore the
frontiers of medicine and cancer treatment. This spring, shell
attend a national conference, Confronting Cancer as a Chronic
Disease. She plans to listen to the cutting edge presentations and
then share the new information with her patients and local medical
Holmes himself was deeply changed. After living for months in a
twilight world, never knowing the number of weeks or even days he had
left, he feels transformed. He speaks about it to audiences,
including physician groups, locally and across the state.
To come back from death, to have a psychological and spiritual
resurrection its like, I cant tell you what it is. I am not the
same, and I am very thankful Im not. Like most people, I took life
for granted before this, and Ive been given another chance. Maybe
thats why I am hereto tell people. When they ask me how I am, Ill
say, I am dying. As a matter of fact, we are all dying. Celebrate and
enjoy the miracle of life.
After Holmes made his full recovery, Holmes emailed his physicians
at U-Ms Cancer Center, informing them of his remarkable outcome with
an offer to speak. His emails were ignored.
Yet both remain committed to sharing their story, offering it as a ray
of hope for many who feel none as he once did.