Marcos Bretón

This doctor runs against time and the two companions trying to kill him

Runners line up for the start of last year’s California International Marathon. Larry Saltzman will run this year, despite his leukemia and lymphoma.
Runners line up for the start of last year’s California International Marathon. Larry Saltzman will run this year, despite his leukemia and lymphoma. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

One week from today, Larry Saltzman expects to cross the finish line of the California International Marathon and then raise his arms in a moment of fulfillment that all marathoners experience when conquering the unforgiving course from Folsom to the state Capitol.

Saltzman, 63, has covered the entire 26 miles, 385 yards twice before, back when he ran simply for fun and good health. This year, he’s attempting only half the course and plans to walk part of it.

It’s less than Saltzman hoped, but the best he can do, given what he’s up against. Instead of crossing the finish line alone, Saltzman expects to finish CIM on Dec. 4 with 30 friends and loved ones. Saltzman, a former family doctor, has built a life based on community and an ever-expanding network of people he and his wife, Sharon, care about. That fellowship is returned in kind, a blessing. Saltzman has never needed it as much as as he does now.

For this race, Saltzman is participating to live. He’s raising money to combat the two unwanted companions that will haunt every step he takes. Saltzman has leukemia and lymphoma.

No cures exist for Saltzman’s cancers, only treatments. Saltzman has no guarantees he will run another marathon after this one. That’s not a thought he cares to dwell on for very long, but even this doctor who diagnosed himself in 2009 is not immune from the emotional upheaval of living with the menace of cancer.

“I’m living two months at a time,” he said. “It’s emotionally taxing for me, my spouse, my family. I’m going to run the race and then later in December I’ll be evaluated. If it’s bad, I’ll be in the hospital for a month.”

Saltzman hopes that December will be book-ended by a positive medical checkup and a joyous event at CIM, where he and his friends raise $150,000 for cancer research. The money will go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the largest voluntary health organization dedicated to helping find cures and treatments for blood cancer patients.

Through the work of LLS and others, more sophisticated treatments have provided new hope for blood cancer patients. Saltzman is one of those patients getting advanced treatments. One involves Saltzman periodically traveling to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where doctors extract his white blood cells, genetically reprogram them and reintroduce them in his body. The hope is that the newly reprogrammed cells will recognize the cancer cells in Saltzman’s body and kill them.

If it sounds like science fiction, it’s because 10 years ago it was.

“I’m involved in raising funds for treatments that are the reason I’m still alive,” Saltzman said. “Social investment for basic research has developed these new therapies. In some cases, they’ve taken a decade to come alive.”

Each therapy – along with pills Saltzman takes, and chemotherapy – has bought him time. Each increment of time brings the hope of new therapies that will extend his life and the lives of thousands of others.

So Saltzman runs in the marathon to raise funds for therapies that are evolving, a race against time to save lives.

Saltzman, a native of Chicago, and his wife moved to Sacramento almost 40 years ago. Life has been about using time to build relationships and friendships. Saltzman bought a medical practice on 24th and Capitol in 1978. He inherited 500 patients. By the time he sold his practice to UC Davis in 1995, he had 10,000 patients.

He was known as the doctor who eschewed scanning charts and computers while meeting with patients. He sat with them, looked them in the eye, talked to them. He wanted them to feel that they had his undivided attention and his concern. He and Sharon built a core group of friends – from his medical community and her ties to Sacramento’s art community.

They raised two kids in Land Park and fell in love with Sacramento. It was a wonderful life until Saltzman diagnosed himself with leukemia. His white blood cell count “went crazy.” His white cell count proliferated to dangerous levels, crowding out red blood cells that carry oxygen and platelets that form clots to stop bleeding.

“I wigged out,” said Saltzman, remembering when his diagnosis was confirmed. “My whole head went to trash.” Then came lymphoma, the name for a group of blood cancers that start in the lymphatic system or the lymph nodes or glands. At one point, tumors caused his neck to swell. They caused a blockage that resulted in Saltzman having part of his colon removed.

Through it all, his mind drifted to running – to covering the marathon course as he did when he was healthy. He didn’t want to give up, even though he couldn’t run the 26 miles anymore. So he kept working out when he could and volunteering for LLS. He is currently trying to create a national computer database of blood cancer patients. The hope is that shared information will promote best practices to benefit more patients.

If Saltzman keeps running, maybe he and others will keep living. On Dec. 4, he expects to be inspired by the community where he chose to make his life – a life he hopes to prolong and share with as many people as he can.

“You have to draw on all the positive things in your life,” Saltzman said. “And the support I’ve received is stunning. This is a beautiful community.”

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

How to help

You can donate to Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at http://events.lls.org/pages/sac/DrLarrysTeam

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