Harry Wirth

Harry WirthIt started with a bump on his upper thigh in 2002. Harry, an avid biker, thought it was the result of a fall. At the time, he was a tenured professor of art and design at Northern Illinois University, looking forward to a sabbatical. He planned to do a little watercolor painting, race a few motorcycles and concentrate on what he calls his “25-year work in progress,” a custom home amid high-grass prairie in rural Salem, Wis. Instead, Harry spent his sabbatical year in cancer research.

Before that research drew the battle lines, more than a year had been spent trying to find answers about that bump on his thigh. The doctors he saw couldn’t seem to agree on what it was. And the growth was getting bigger.

Finally, he went to Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Sarcoma Program, and got his answer: soft tissue sarcoma. The tumor on the professor’s leg was so rare only two local orthopaedic oncology specialists, both at Froedtert & the Medical College, knew what it was. The standard of treatment then was excising this high-grade tumor. But at that point, it was so big the whole leg was in jeopardy.

David King, MD, a Medical College of Wisconsin orthopaedic oncologist who specializes in sarcomas, recommended a clinical trial available at the Froedtert & the Medical College Clinical Cancer Center. It offered an alternative: First shrink the tumor (the size of a softball) with aggressive chemotherapy and radiation therapy; then, perform surgery on what was left, thereby saving more of the leg. Harry signed on. A good half-year – his sabbatical year – was spent at Froedtert & the Medical College undergoing high-dosage chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, and then chemo once more.

During the final chemo treatments, what he recalls as his lowest point, Harry lay in bed, unable to eat, tired beyond all measure. His wife was near. He was cradled within the house he built - his life’s work, one that could shelter but could not energize. The surgery was yet to come. He wondered, was it time to … raise the white flag, stop the unbearable treatments and just let go?

Then his high-achiever to-do list kicked in: An interior wall needed to be changed, a design detail had to be refined, a portfolio evaluated. Harry’s inner voice whispered: ‘I have unfinished business; I need to continue, to keep hanging on.’

Fast forward nine-plus years. Harry has no limp, and wears no prosthetic. Only a battle scar on his upper left thigh remains. Had he decided to scale back, conventional treatment would have resulted in a limp and far less mobility.

Now, there are three orthopaedic oncologists on Harry’s team, Dr. King and colleagues Donald Hackbarth, Jr., MD, and John Nielson, MD, along with John Charlson, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin medical oncologist, and Dian Wang, MD, PhD, Medical College of Wisconsin radiation oncologist – all part of a team specializing in sarcomas.

Their continuing goal is to reduce recurrence and save more of the affected limb. In the years since Harry’s trial by fire, the limb salvage rate for sarcomas like his is 98 percent or better at Froedtert & the Medical College, according to Dr. King. Due to the success of the clinical trial, the treatment used for Harry has become standard at Froedtert & the Medical College. Refinements – steady advances – on all fronts continue to be made.

A fight against cancer can alter your bucket list. The list becomes much shorter, or much, much longer. In retirement, Harry continues riding mountain bikes, and even faster high-performance motorcycles. He’s adopted a brighter cast and more intriguing angles in his watercolor landscapes. And he continues to mentor promising students.

Now about the house….

Follow-up: April 2014 is Harry’s 10-year anniversary; by then he is likely to get a clean bill of health and be considered “essentially cancer free,” according to Dr. King.

On Harry’s team: Donald Hackbarth, Jr., MD; David King, MD; John Nielson, MD; John Charlson, MD; Dian Wang, MD, PhD

Photo by Kasia Stachowiak


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