Brent Loescher has the calm, cool, quiet “just doing my job” demeanor you’d expect from a 21-year U.S. Army veteran with a tour of Iraq under his belt and a Bronze Star on his chest. A natural leader, he enjoys speaking before audiences about his passion and expertise in what he calls Operational Excellence — getting the most out of your people, be it a logistics crew supplying a 500-member battalion while dodging IEDs (improvised explosive devices), a national landscaping company or the staff of Toyota North America.
Loescher prefers not to focus on himself in his public speaking, but he makes an exception when it comes to City of Hope.
“I just tend to keep to myself, but in sharing my City of Hope cancer story, I realize it is not about me, but my opportunity to provide an insider’s view of what it’s like to be a patient at City of Hope and what makes City of Hope so unique,” Loescher said. “Until I crossed paths with City of Hope, I truly never grasped that a hospital could be anything more than a cold, sterile, depressing, business-like building. That is definitely not City of Hope.”
A Calming Campus
Loescher’s first introduction to City of Hope came through his employment with Valleycrest Landscape Maintenance, now called Brightview, the landscape company that contracts with City of Hope to keep the Duarte, California, campus manicured and welcoming for patients, visitors and staff.
A few years later, Loescher was invited to one of City of Hope’s Construction Industries Alliance fundraisers by his friend Ken Birkett, senior manager of development in City of Hope’s Corporate Philanthropy Department.
“That night, I heard a former patient tell their story and I learned more about the groundbreaking approaches to cancer treatment at City of Hope,” he said. “Leaving that night, I wouldn’t have guessed that within a year my next association with City of Hope would be a much more personal one.”
That was in 2018, when Loescher noticed the glands in his neck were swollen. Over the next few weeks, the left side improved; the right side did not. The swollen area hardened and grew. An ear/nose/throat specialist told him he suspected cancer.
“I was alarmed to say the least,” Loescher recalled. “Both my father and grandfather had died of cancer. Things got a little blurry for me in that moment and, oddly, my wife was not my first call.”
It was Birkett’s phone that rang. “My only words to Ken were, ‘I need help,’” Loescher said. During their friendship, Birkett had said to him before, “If it’s ever cancer, call me.”
“Brent’s a cool guy, and I just wanted to help,” explained Birkett, who is also a neighbor of Loescher’s in Redlands. The two met years earlier at a local microbrewery, where the bartender happened to be Loescher’s stepdaughter. Birkett and Loescher share a love of woodworking, the Green Bay Packers and, of course, City of Hope.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
After reaching out to his friend for advice, Loescher became a patient of City of Hope head and neck surgeon Thomas J. Gernon, M.D. Loescher was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the throat and neck, a variety of head and neck cancers caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV.
Like so many of the 35,000 adults who develop cancer linked to HPV, Loescher, now in his 50s, has no idea how or when he was first infected. In all likelihood it happened decades earlier.
“The virus can lay dormant for 20 years or more, but as you age and your immunity drops, HPV can reactivate,” Gernon said. “Brent’s was found in his tonsils. It was a pretty good-sized tumor, almost reaching his jaw.”
‘A Completely Preventable Cancer’
Gernon said that head and neck cancers stemming from HPV are becoming more common because the HPV vaccine, which can prevent these and other types of cancers, has only been available since 2006. Children of earlier generations never received the vaccine, leaving them vulnerable in adulthood to a dormant infection presenting much later in life.
The good news is that this form of cancer responds well to treatment, whether it’s surgery to remove the tumor or a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. In Loescher’s case, the tumor was situated too close to his carotid artery, so he opted for a multiweek course of chemo and radiation, overseen by radiation oncologist Sagus Sampath, M.D.
“This treatment is not easy,” Gernon said. “It’s a real journey to get through it. But the odds are you’ll be able to resume a normal life.” The five-year survival rate approaches 90%.
Compassion of City of Hope Employees
Loescher’s daughter Madison joined him at one of his appointments for what he knew was going to be a long day.
“At one point during my treatment, she stepped out to get us some food. She told me that, on her walk, she broke down and sobbed, but it wasn’t just her own emotions that caught her off guard, it was the reactions from others around her that surprised her most,” Loescher said.
Madison told her dad that three different City of Hope employees stopped to check if she was all right. “’Dad, it was so nice,’ she told me,” Loescher said. “’I couldn’t believe they took the time to check in, even though they must see an emotional display like that every day.’”
Loescher’s treatment went well. On Dec. 26, 2018, he was back at his local microbrewery for a holiday party with much of his extended family, including his buddy Birkett. It was at that gathering that Loescher said he received the call from his radiologist telling him he was cancer free.
“Everybody cried,” he said. “The news couldn’t have been better.”
After his successful treatment and positive care experience at City of Hope, Loescher said he is determined to give back. He is a much sought-after patient speaker at City of Hope events, where he shares his story, but also his “crusade” to encourage HPV vaccination. Like many other hospital visits and treatments, HPV vaccination saw a decline over the last two years due to the pandemic and reluctance to schedule routine appointments. But there is no cure for HPV, and once infected, it is too late to get vaccinated.
“The success rates should not be ignored,” Loescher said. “It’s just about being safe.”
His ‘NASCAR’ Crew
Today, Loescher considers his City of Hope care team part of his extended family, a multidisciplinary group that he affectionately likes to refer to as his “NASCAR Pit Crew Team.”
“When you think about it, if someone is in trouble, families tend to rally together, surround that person, protect them and get them back on track,” Loescher said. “That is the experience I had at City of Hope from Day 1. The entire team — my radiologist, oncologist and surgeon, the dietitians, speech therapists, a host of technicians all around me and, of course, the nurses — is focused on ensuring that patients feel loved and taken care of.”