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Ox Man: Auckland teacher faces rare cancer, rare treatment

Wednesday 7 Aug 2013 5:02 p.m.

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If you would like to help Rodney Gordon and support his family, check out the Rodney Gordon Trust.

Prostate cancer normally affects men in their 60s and 70s. So when athletic 45-year-old teacher Rodney Gordon was diagnosed with the most aggressive form of the disease possible, it didn’t just shock his family to the core, it shocked his entire school community. It also shocked doctors.

There were no options in New Zealand for a cure. His disease had spread. But halfway around the world, oncologists in Los Angeles have been willing to take a chance on Mr Gordon. Treating his aggressive cancer with aggressive methods, they've made him a test case of one.

It's radical and it's pricey, but help has come from hundreds of boys – his students at Auckland Grammar.

For 21 years Mr Gordon has taught teenage boys at Auckland Grammar. He's taught them economics and he's taught them to run. But that's not the half of it.

The boys call him "The Ox", or "Ox Man".

"I don’t know why," he says. The boys do.

"He'll go swimming all morning, then he'll just go out and hit the pavement and just run and run and run himself into the ground," says student Jonty Morreau.

"I think everyone who’s passed through distance squad just has the upmost respect for him," says Fletcher Boswell. "He’s a strong man, strong as an ox."

But the strong, fit coach is now running a race for his very life.

"Cancer," he says, "was not something I considered."

The 45-year-old has always looked after his health. He’s been a serious triathlete, and continues to train for hours a week. But last July, after his first ever prostate check up, Mr Gordon got news that stopped him in his tracks.

He had Gleasson 10 prostate cancer – 10 being the worst on the scale.

"It's huge, huge shock," he says. "For the doctor, for the GP, I think he was more shocked than I was."

In the next five months, the cancer spread to his pelvis and his chest. Doctors said there was little they could do.

"I think they were looking at palliative care – managing me until eventually, whatever was going to happen.

"I wanted the possibility of treating it and getting rid of the disease – the opportunity to fight."

It was on a school trip to the States with the cross country team that Mr Gordon first met with expert prostate oncologist Dr Richard Lam in Los Angeles.

"I said, 'Look Richard, there is some resistance here to the treatment. They don't want to radiate up here in the chest – just the prostate. What do you think?' And he said, 'You've got to get it all radiated. You’ve got to go for it.'"

It was a long way from home, but it was what Mr Gordon had been looking for – the chance to fight.

"It was an aggressive form of prostate cancer; it needed an aggressive treatment plan," he says.

A plan was one thing – but money was another. But he'd taught his boys economics, and as it turned out they'd been paying attention.

"Incredible, absolutely incredible – the first act of fundraising the boys did was the carwash in the last Christmas holidays and I was completely blown away by that."

The carwash raised $6000. A charity quiz night raised $60,000.

It enabled Mr Gordon, a husband and father of two boys of his own, to board that plane to Los Angeles and take the opportunity doctors there had given him.

He is hoping for a cure.

"That’s what I’m looking for. I’ve sat down with Dr Richard Lam and I remember the words last time I sat down with him and he said, 'What I’m prescribing you is what I’d give myself if I were in your situation so you can trust me.'"

"For someone like Rodney, who's very healthy, of course he has a lot to live for," says Dr Lam. "We wanted to go the extra mile to try and knock this down."

Doctor Lam is one of the leading prostate specialists in the world. He’s treated thousands of men, but no one quite like Mr Gordon. But it's because of his age and fitness that Dr Lam thinks they have a shot.

"In rare cases when you treat the cancer in the mothership and the metastatic area, there are occasions when the person can be in remission forever," says Dr Lam.

The mothership is the cancer in Mr Gordon’s prostate. The metastatic areas are where the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in his chest and his clavicle bone. Treating all of it through drugs, hormone therapy and radiation might give Mr Gordon a chance.

But for radiation oncologist Dr Chris Rose, it’s a unique challenge. He hasn't treated a patient with cancer in all three areas before.

"I said he had to understand that if he was going to come here all the way from New Zealand he was going to be the first patient that was treated that way," says Dr Rose. "So one understands why the doctors in New Zealand perhaps looked at this in askance because it certainly is not conventional treatment.”

So he's gone for it – two eight-week blocks of radiation, five times a week. Limited studies suggest the approach could work, but it's new medicine.

But after his first eight weeks of radiation, Mr Gordon is feeling good. He feels so good in fact that just 24 hours after getting off the plane from LA he’s at Piha competing in a run and ocean race.

"Nothing's kept me back really," he says. "So for example you might get out of the water after a surf and think, 'Gee I nearly forgot there for a while that I’ve got cancer.'"

His month at home between treatments was no excuse for a rest. Mr Gordon got back in the classroom. And in another giant fundraising push, his students got back on the track.

In one long, continuous relay, the boys ran and ran for four days and four nights.

"Each group has an eight-hour shift with the third formers from 8am till 4pm," says student Matt. "The fourth and fifth from 4pm till midnight and the seniors from midnight till 8am, so it's pretty much people running constantly for 100 hours."

The grueling running event raised another $40,000. It's all had a profound effect on Mr Gordon, who never realised quite how much impact he had on the boys.

"This has been one huge jolt, with what the boys have done for me."

By the time Mr Gordon arrives back in LA, all of his second bout of treatment has been pre-paid. But while he has no financial worries, this time his body is feeling the effects.

"This week is the 14th week of radiation. The white blood cells and the platelets, they're going down. I’ve got to be very careful of that.

"A lot of places [where they are giving radiation] wouldn’t do it. It is risky in the short term and in the long term it is a wee bit risky. But I’m willing to take that risk."

In the midst of all this uncertainty, Mr Gordon is consistently grateful.

"I'm very lucky," he says. "Very, very lucky.

"It's incredible what they’ve done to get me here, and it’s the whole Auckland Grammar school community."

If there's been one lesson in all of this, it’s the economics of generosity. Doctors in Los Angeles have discounted their fees, and Grammar students have helped raise almost $200,000 to date.

There's a long road ahead. But stamina is something the teacher's got in spades.

"Emotionally it's starting to hit now," he says, "It's a long time away from home."

But he is ready to go back a healthy man.

"Firstly, back to see my own boys play rugby on Saturday when I get home, and then on Monday heading back to school. Can't wait."

To learn more about Prostate Cancer visit the Prostate Cancer Foundation of New Zealand.

Dr Richard Lam is at Prostate Oncology, and Dr Chris Rose is at the Vantage Oncology clinic in Beverly Hills.


  • Reporter: Sarah Hall
  • Producer: Natasha Utting
  • Camera: Arthur Rasmussen
  • Editor: Toby Longbottom
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