In the dark days of December 2002, Bruce Hendry viewed his terminal cancer diagnosis
as anything but a gift. Today, six years later and cancer free, he considers
it a blessing. Indeed, Hendry’s brush with mortality not only brought more joy
to his life, it may prove to be a lifesaver for countless other terminally ill
Hendry learned he had cancer a week before Christmas. A few days later, tests confirmed the worst-case scenario – it was stage-four mantle cell lymphoma. Then, on successive days, he was told it had spread to his bone marrow and colon. "It was like getting punched in the stomach every day for a week," Hendry recalls.
The prognosis? Three to five years. Ever the practical, efficient businessman, Hendry wasted little time feeling sorry for himself. "I was only 60 years old and I thought I’d live longer but that’s still a long time," Hendry says. "I just tried to accept the reality of the situation. If you’re in denial and can’t define the problem properly, you can’t address it. If the problem was that I had three years to live, then the question was, “How am I going to spend them?”
A longtime Minneapolis stockbroker, Hendry had built a sterling reputation by investing in and resuscitating undervalued and bankrupt companies. As chairman and majority owner, he was still actively involved in day-to-operations at Minnesota Brewing and Gopher State Ethanol. He was also on the board of several other local companies.
Overnight, however, his lifelong passion for wheeling and dealing simply vanished. "I wanted to act quickly to end my involvement in those businesses, and do what I had to do to simplify my financial life so my wife wouldn’t have a lot of estate planning work," Hendry says. "And then I was going to prepare to die."
Then one day while researching his disease on the Internet, he stumbled across the MD Anderson Cancer Center, a world-renowned Houston clinic that specialized in treating mantle cell lymphoma. When Hendry asked his wife Sharon to listen to one of the site’s online lectures, she couldn’t do it. "She was in denial," Hendry recalls. "I wasn’t expecting any miracles. I knew that the standard treatment for mantle cell lymphoma wouldn’t extend my life, much less cure me. But I told her that this was real life and we needed to deal with it together."
To Hendry’s surprise, the 90-minute lecture concluded with the news that the center was testing a new treatment option. Hendry and his wife were in Houston within three weeks. Five months later, after six grueling rounds of chemotherapy, he was declared cancer free – just in time to make it back to town for his daughter Jill’s wedding.
No longer contemplating death, Hendry instead began celebrating life. "I’ve been a runner my whole life," he says. "After I recovered, I’d go running in the woods behind my house. When no one else was around, I’d just scream at the top of my lungs for the sheer joy of being alive and being able to run. It’s been three years now and I just love the fact that I’m healthy – and that I can spend time with my grandkids, come up to our lake cabin or just read all day. This simpler way of living has a lot to it. It’s just wonderful."
After a life of accumulating wealth, Hendry now finds pleasure in sharing it with others. "Thinking you’re going to die triggers a whole different way of thinking," he says. "One of the impulses I had was to give things away. I had some parcels of land that I was never going to use, and I thought, why wait until I die? I’ll give them to people I love right now."
The business files that Hendry had cleaned out in the weeks after his diagnosis have remained empty. "My whole life since I was 11 years old has been centered around making money and finding business opportunities," he says. "People still come to me with deals, but I’m just not interested in that anymore."
He did, however, make one exception. A Chicago stockbroker he had worked with thought Hendry might want to take a look at Eleos, an Omaha-based company that had developed a cancer-fighting drug. "The investment itself sounded interesting, but it was a lot more important to me to see if someone was really finding a cure for cancer," Hendry says. "I wanted to know if the drug would be applicable to the cancer I had in case it came back."
It was. "Our drug, which is broadly applicable to all types of cancer, blocks p53, now the most famous protein in cancer biology," explains Dr. Larry Smith, Eleos’ founder. "When we do that, we can sensitize cancer cells to even low doses of chemotherapy, and at the same time protect the types of normal cells that are most often adversely affected by chemotherapy or radiation: the bone marrow, the gastrointestinal tract and the hair follicles."
Back in 1986, Smith published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Medicine that positively connected p53 with the growth of leukemic stem cells. Since then, the medical community has accepted the idea that many, if not all, cancers are maintained by cancerous stem cells.
Before investing in the company in May 2005, Hendry tracked down the two key MD Anderson doctors who were administering the drug. "I flew down there and talked to them," Hendry says. "I wanted to make sure they felt they had something of significance. They were getting phenomenal results. In the end, my impression was that these two docs thought there was something very special going on."
If Hendry himself had not stared down death, would he have provided the financial backing that’s fueling Smith’s vision of a cancer-free world? "Not at all," says Hendry, who notes that Eleos’ progress has been stalled by a lack of additional funding. "I had no interest in cancer. I had never even heard of the world’s leading cancer clinic. Now I can throw out words like methotrexate, vincristine, doxorubicin and all sorts of other medical terminology like I was a doc. It’s a whole new vocabulary that I never cared to have. But I’ve got it, so I’m going to make the most of it."