Although State College ranks as the 14th largest city in Pennsylvania, it is at the center of a global network of medical care that is treating resident Ryan Russell, a 40-year-old father of three children, associate professor of graphic design at Penn State University, and internationally acclaimed designer. His story highlights the critical role and service an award-winning health system provides to relatively small communities. It also demonstrates the value of providing complex treatments like chemotherapy and radiation close to home.
Russell’s journey began earlier this year when he wanted to figure out why his headaches were increasing in severity. After seeing multiple physicians and ruling out several reasons for his headaches, he had an MRI at Mount Nittany Medical Center. When the MRI was finished, the radiation oncologist was waiting for him, and he was told the news no one ever wanted to hear. The situation was so serious that he was life flighted to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (Penn Medicine) in Philadelphia.
Russell immediately had a craniotomy, and a portion of the suspected brain tumor was removed. From the start, his case was unusual. While he had the typical symptoms of glioblastoma, there were oddities with his tumors. Ultimately, the physicians at Penn Medicine diagnosed him with glioblastoma – grade 4. “We went in hoping for the best case scenario, thinking about what kind of hill we have to climb but it turned out to be Mt. Everest,” says Russell.
Cancer diagnoses are devastating, but even after receiving this life-changing news, Russell has remained incredibly positive and optimistic. As he wrote on his blog, ‘My Grey Matters
,’ “I’m going to state upfront that I consider myself a very lucky person…I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by incredible people, incredible experiences, and have accomplished incredible things.”
An associate professor in graphic design at Penn State, Russell has received national and international acclaim for his projects in visual strategy, identity, social campaign design, professional practice, and pedagogy. He is also an inspiring teacher, who is revered by his students and highly respected by his colleagues.
After receiving his diagnosis, Ryan and his family immediately snapped into action to address his cancer treatment and create his standard of care. His uncle was formerly a radiologist and helped him build his ‘team’, which includes doctors from Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, and Drs. Veeral B. Patel and Jerome Derdel, radiation oncology at Mount Nittany Health. Dr. Derdel has been with Mount Nittany Health for nearly 40 years and has been honored many times for his patient-first approach that has shaped the culture of the department. Dr. Patel is in his eighth year at Mount Nittany Health and has had a transformative effect on the department, implementing state-of-the-art radiation oncology treatment templates to allow for more accurate documentation and implementing performance enhancements that allow patients to view their treatment area and its response to treatment. Drs. Patel and Derdel and the world-class oncology radiation facility at the Lance and Ellen Shaner Cancer Pavilion at Mount Nittany Medical Center allowed Russell to stay in his home with his wife and children, while undergoing daily radiation treatments and biweekly immunotherapy treatments.
Russell credited the staff of the Lance and Ellen Shaner Cancer Pavilion for being “…amazing and so kind,” and was presented with a certificate for completing his radiation treatment and given the opportunity to ‘ring the bell’ in August 2022. “I rang the bell. Loud. I brought my entire cancer crew because this milestone isn’t just mine. It’s theirs too. They’ve held me up from the very beginning while I got back on my feet,” wrote Russell.
Glioblastoma is a rare, complex, and treatment resistant form of cancer. According to the National Brain Tumor Society, the five-year survival rate for glioblastoma patients is only 6.8 percent, and the average length of survival for glioblastoma patients is estimated to be only 8 months. It’s a brutal diagnosis, which is why Russell has now focused on providing resources about glioblastoma on his website, including information about clinical studies and alternative treatments.
“My goal is to help as many people and families and individuals who are suffering from glioblastoma and need resources and information. I am not a doctor, and I don’t want to give medical advice but instead help people to find information on clinical trials and international immunotherapies.”
Next up for Russell is an experimental treatment from CeGat in Tübingen, Germany. CeGat took a tissue sample of his brain tumor that was removed earlier this year. They will use blood samples and have tested to see the genetic markers and mutations in order to create a one-of-a-kind and individualized vaccine for Russell. He is traveling to Germany to receive his treatment and will receive additional shots every 4-6 weeks over the course of the next year.
It is remarkable to listen to Russell and learn about his experience and perspective. “The real thing that I realized is that the most important thing you get is time. Every single day since diagnosis is the happiest day of my life because I’ve reprioritized what I want to do; such as spend time with my family, wife, kids, and the projects I want to do. This diagnosis is not an end, it is the beginning. I feel better today than before this diagnosis. I am just going to keep marching forward, and I will not stop. I just celebrated my 40th birthday, and I have every intention of celebrating my 50th birthday too.”
If you would like to learn more about how Mount Nittany Health Foundation supports cancer patients or assists them in removing barriers to care, please visit foundation.mountnittany.org