April 21, 2016 | by Letisia Marquez
When Emmy-award winning television producer and writer Steven Bochco walked into City of Hope for the first time, he had learned only a few days earlier that he had a rare form of leukemia. He was still reeling, understandably terrified – and unsure about where he would be treated.
“It’s a bolt out of the blue, and completely unexpected” said Bochco, 72, about being diagnosed with cancer. “It’s the last thing in the world you expect when you spend your whole adult life basically working out to be healthy.”
But that 2014 visit to City of Hope assuaged his fears. As soon as he entered the building, Lupe Santana, a City of Hope patient services navigator, greeted Bochco and his wife, Dayna, and guided them through the medical appointments scheduled for that day.
At the hospital’s laboratory, the woman who drew his blood told Bochco that she was a cancer survivor who had received a stem cell transplant, more commonly called a bone marrow transplant, at City of Hope. They chatted, and she found out that Bochco would be treated by the same doctor who had treated her 13 years ago – Stephen J. Forman, M.D.
“If I could afford it, I would work here for nothing, because as far as I’m concerned Dr. Stephen Forman walks on water,” the woman told him.
Forman is the leader of the Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplantation Institute at City of Hope, as well as the Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation. But although nonpatients know him as a pioneer in the treatment of leukemia and other cancers, his patients know him as a caring, passionate physician who makes them – and their care – his top priority.
“I thought, ‘OK, I know I’m in the right place,'’” said Bochco, a 10-time Emmy winner who produced and wrote the television hits "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "Doogie Howser, M.D.," and "NYPD Blue," among others. “If I have to get on this plane, this is the guy I want flying it for me.”
Forman’s dedication to his patients and positive spirit infused Bochco’s treatment with a uniquely City of Hope combination of optimism and compassion.
“No institution is more than its people,” Bochco said. “Every single person I met at City of Hope – from the admitting personnel to my day-to-day nurses – were just remarkable people.
“When you’re dealing with something that is life-threatening, you really want to feel good about the people you’re entrusting your life to,” he added.
As with all cancer patients, the first few months of treatment were trying ones for Bochco, who had been diagnosed with blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm.
He spent 70 days at City of Hope Helford Clinical Research Hospital, which included three rounds of chemotherapy to eradicate cancerous cells and to help prepare his body for a stem cell transplant. Dayna insisted on remaining at the hospital with him during that time.
Because he knew he would spend so much time at the hospital, Bochco wrote a daily email to 50 friends.
Those emails, which ended up totaling 80 pages, are included in a forthcoming book written by Bochco about his experiences working in the entertainment industry for 50 years and his cancer fight.
“My sense was that, having cancer, I might be dying,” Bochco said of the emails in the book "Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television," which will soon be available on Amazon. “But I’d be a writer to my last, dying breath, and writing down my thoughts and daily experiences wrestling this monster might just cut it down to size and make it a less formidable foe.”
He also wrote the emails because he needed his friends’ support.
“One of the terrible things that happens when you have a potentially fatal disease is that people are afraid to talk to you,” he said during a recent interview in his Santa Monica office. “When you need them the most, they kind of withdraw from you because they don’t know what to say.
“These emails gave everyone permission to talk about cancer,” he added.
Bochco’s email topics ranged widely, from how chemotherapy was ravaging his body to how he was grateful to the many friends who emailed him daily and lifted his spirits.
“Some days, it took me three to four hours to write the email because I had lost a lot of fine motor ability,” he said. “I would have to go back and correct literally with one finger, but I got these things out. And then the most amazing thing happened. If there was a day that went by that I didn’t send one, I’d get 50 emails saying, ‘Where’s your email?’”
On Oct. 7, 2014, Bochco received stem cells from an unrelated donor. Since then, Bochco has yearned to ask the anonymous 23-year-old who helped him beat cancer the same question: What motivates a person – especially one so young with his whole life ahead – to become a bone marrow donor, potentially saving an unknown person’s life?
“When I was 23 … I never thought about doing something so profound and life-altering for someone else,” Bochco said. “I’ve had him in my head and in my heart ever since.”
Bochco arrived home the day before Halloween 2014, and joked to friends that he didn’t need a costume. He had lost 40 pounds and all his hair.
But he was determined to get back in shape, and pushed himself a little further each day.
“The body is a remarkable thing,” he said. “If you give it half a chance, it wants to be well.”
Within 10 weeks, he was hiking, taking long walks and lifting weights again.
“After my wrestling match with leukemia, I think about life and death differently than before,” he wrote in his book. “I treasure life more, and fear death less. Life and its complications are simpler for me, now.
“I don’t sweat the small stuff, as they say,” he said. “And there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t ponder the last 20 months of my life and marvel at how unbelievably lucky I was.”
Even better, on May 6, Bochco will get the chance to meet that lifesaving donor – and thank him for the opportunity to “treasure life more, and fear death less.”
If you are looking for a second opinion or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.