Doug Wilson and Betsey Bent are retired and live in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, these days, spending hours on paddle boards in the sound and enjoying time with their daughter, Elizabeth, and Coby, their springer spaniel who is never left out of family activities. Bent is 71 and Wilson is 74, but he now counts his age only in years since his life-saving bone marrow transplant at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital, the clinical home of UNC Lineberger. He’s now three and a half, he says, a significant milestone based on his early prognosis with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, mantle cell lymphoma.
Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer
“My Wilmington oncologist said it was stage 4, and I had it in my bone marrow, my lymph nodes and several other places throughout my body,” Wilson said. “My prognosis was not very good.”
With such a rare form of cancer, Wilson’s oncologist referred him to UNC Lineberger, and he and Bent headed to Chapel Hill to meet with Christopher Dittus, DO, MPH, two days after his diagnosis. After their initial meeting, the couple knew Wilson was in good hands.
“At Lineberger, we were so lucky that Dr. Dittus had treated [mantle cell]. It’s rare, and we were so fortunate that there is an expert at Lineberger,” Bent said.
They had done their homework on Dittus and were confident in their choice of oncologist and care team. Wilson is also a Carolina alumnus, which made the decision a little easier. Dittus explained Wilson’s options, with a bone marrow transplant offering the best chance for extended remission.
“I was 71 at the time, and I was sort of aging out of the possibilities, but he went through everything and told me what we had to do,” Wilson said. “He wanted me to go home and think about going through an aggressive chemotherapy program that he felt was necessary to get me into remission and eligible for transplant.”
Collaborative cancer care and strong community support
Once Wilson was transplant-ready, UNC Lineberger’s Marcie Riches, MD, stepped in for the next step of his cancer journey. Wilson read through binders of information on bone marrow transplants, went through additional testing to make sure his body could handle the stress of the transplant and spent more than an hour answering Riches’ questions.
Wilson and Bent said their experience with bone marrow transplant actually brought their family closer together and even what was once an extended community became part of their family fold. Bent served as her husband’s primary caregiver but found more support than she expected. Their daughter frequently returned from her home in Portland, Oregon, to North Carolina to help her parents, and a group of close friends in their Wrightsville Beach community pitched in and helped with Wilson’s care.
“The restrictions required by COVID-19 have not been new to us. We’ve almost been living that for three years with the transplant care restrictions,” Bent said.
“The impact cancer has on the family is huge,” Wilson said. “This has transformed Betsey’s life more than mine. There were many times that Betsey had to do special meals, take care of me and do everything, and the way in which the people at Lineberger treated us helped her deal with this. It’s harder on her than on me. I was going through it, but she was having to watch it.”
Supporting the cancer center’s mission
Wilson and Bent couldn’t stop thinking about the effects of cancer on their family and how others have gone through the same experiences they did. Like many people, they had friends who had been treated for cancer, and they began considering a significant gift to UNC Lineberger. Based on their own personal experiences and research, the couple discovered the cancer center’s mission was in line with their own values.
“To me, it’s the devastation of cancer in general that affects all of us. We attended the Blue Ribbon Gala two years ago, and I was so moved by the stories of the patients, [UNC Lineberger Director] Shelley Earp, Champ Mitchell and the many folks we met and talked with at the gala. I talked to Champ about what he had learned about the mission of Lineberger, and a lot of that was clicking,” Wilson said.
Wilson and Bent liked that the N.C. Cancer Hospital’s mission is to treat everyone regardless of their ability to pay. This struck a chord with both of them, as Bent served as director of Senior Services at Mission Health Systems in Asheville, North Carolina, and Wilson had been heavily involved in legal aid and other charities during his years as a managing partner of an Asheville law firm. They also joined the Board of Visitors after being asked by Wilson’s fraternity brother and current Board of Visitors President Jim Harrell.
Basing their decision on the “world-class standing of UNC Lineberger,” Wilson and Bent have donated $10,000 per year during the past two years in honor of Riches and Dittus to support their work in bone marrow transplant and the continued exploration of treatment options for mantle cell lymphoma. This year, they have pledged $50,000 over five years to continue their support.
“That research was important to us. We learned so much about their work,” Bent said. “It was to thank them for [Doug’s] life.”
Paying it forward
“We’ve been so fortunate, and this was something we could do,” Wilson said. “This could help pay forward what was done for me and help so many other people who are exposed and suffer from this horrendous disease.”
Wilson and Bent feel strongly that giving can truly make a difference in the lives of cancer patients and their families, and they hope other people will find ways to give back to UNC Lineberger. The couple said that if people want to help in the fight against cancer, giving to the cancer center is a great investment.
“Listen to the personal stories, they will reach your heart,” Bent said. “Put your money where your heart is.”
“They gave me a chance at life,” Wilson said. “My cancer was nasty stuff; it’s aggressive and I needed to be the best I could possibly be if I was going to survive it. Being treated at UNC Lineberger gave me the best chance to do it.”