Maine Warden needs stem cell transplant

By Lisa Williams Ackley

Staff Writer

"A (stem cell) donor drive is not just about me – it's about others in my predicament — it's an opportunity to throw a lifeline to someone who's in the situation I'm in." — Major Gregg Sanborn, Deputy Chief of the Maine Warden Service

FRYEBURG — Major Gregg Sanborn holds a special place in people's hearts in this town, as he grew up here and graduated from Fryeburg Academy, before going on to become second in command at the Maine Warden Service as deputy chief — the position he holds today.

The people of this community, who have known him since before he became a career game warden, are going to do what they can now to help one of their "favorite sons."

Gregg found out last fall that he has cutaneous T-cell lymphoma — an aggressive form of cancer that has him trying to beat the odds by finding, as quickly as possible, a "stem cell" match that could, literally, save his life.

Gregg and his wife, Deborah, live in Sidney, and they have a 21-year-old son, David, who will graduate this month from the University of Maine at Orono with a degree in History Education.

Gregg's parents were both educators in Fryeburg. His dad, the late Harold Sanborn, taught and coached sports for over 30 years at Fryeburg Academy, while his mother, Blanche, who still resides in Fryeburg, is a teacher retired from the Fryeburg public school system.

Gregg has also become well known to a nationwide television audience, due to his appearances on the Animal Planet's six-part reality series "North Woods Law" that began airing on March 16 of this year.

His hometown friends and the Fryeburg Academy "family" are throwing a benefit dinner and silent auction for Gregg on Saturday night, May 19, beginning at 5 p.m. at Fryeburg Academy's Wadsworth Arena on Bradley Street, the same place a stem cell donor drive will be held the next day, on Sunday, May 20, from noon to 4 p.m.

Go to the website to make an online monetary donation, as the group's goal is $50,000. Those who want to donate may also mail them to Friends of Gregg Sanborn, c/o Norway Savings Bank, 557 Main Street, Fryeburg, Me., 04037. To volunteer at the dinner or stem cell drive, contact Ellen Benson Guilford at 207-754-3143. Becoming a stem cell donor is easy, as it only requires a screening interview and a cheek swab.

How did Gregg find out he has this life-threatening form of cancer?

"Basically, for a period of time, I had itchy spots on different parts of my body — they would come and go," said Gregg. "My doctor sent me to a dermatologist who said I had adult eczema and put me on a medicinal regimen of creams and stuff, and it seemed to work, for awhile."

Gregg said he first noticed the symptoms about the time the Maine Warden Service suffered the tragic loss of one of its pilots, Daryl Gordon, who died in a plane crash in March, 2011.

"That was stressful," said Gregg of Warden Pilot Gordon's death, "and it (the symptoms) took right off. I went to specialists and got prodded, all summer. They thought it might be a type of cancer," he stated.

Saying he was tested for certain types of cancer, at that time, Gregg said, "The last day of August, they told me I'm cancer-free — they said 'it looked good for what we tested you for — you're cancer-free.'"

"But, in September, it didn't go away, so they started a second round of tests," Gregg stated. A Portland dermatologist then determined Gregg had cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.

"For two weeks, I was down in Boston at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute," said Gregg. "My first day of chemotherapy was Nov. 2. The chemotherapy and radiation kill the bad cells, but it also kills the good cells. So, they would use the (donated) stem cells to build up my immune system and if it works, in a year's time, I'll be able to go to work and hunt and fish. If it doesn't work…" his voice trails off, at this point — for Gregg knows it means he will likely die, if a matching donor is not found.

"I need it (the stem-cell transplant) sooner, rather than later," he said.

Currently, Gregg has a cycle of chemotherapy where it is administered two weeks in a row and then he skips a week, he said.

He just completed 15 days of radiation treatment, as well.

Has he missed any work at the Maine Warden Service, since he was diagnosed with cancer?

"No — only for (medical) appointments," said Gregg. "Part of the reason I keep working is for my own mental health. If I'm helping people through the Warden Service, I'm not worrying about my issues."

"The doctors in Boston feel my best chance and, frankly, my only chance at living to be old, is this (stem-cell transplant) procedure," said Gregg.

"The chemotherapy keeps my cancer in check," Gregg said, "but, if they keep giving it to me, it will keep killing the good cells, too."

His fellow game wardens and other law enforcement personnel held a stem-cell donor drive at the University of Maine, recently.

"I appreciate the support in my hometown," said Gregg. "They had a drive up here (at Orono) — it was very successful. We had a great number of college students, wardens and law enforcement officers and family. We got 273 (swab) kits. It was a great turnout."

Yet, the seriousness of his predicament is almost too real, to Gregg. He is so used to being the one to help others, instead of the other way around.

"I really haven't caught a break," said Gregg. "I'm age 46 and I've got cancer — that's not much of a break. There are also 18-year-olds with cancer. The gave me a top new chemotherapy drug that is relatively new and that they've had relatively good luck with — they gave it to me, and it doesn't work — all of November and December, it doesn't work. Then they put me on the chemo I'm on now — and it's good to hold me in check — but it's no cure."

"So, here's an opportunity to be cancer-free, in a year," said Gregg of the much hoped-for stem-cell transplant procedure. "Some may think of it as gambling, but it's really not. With this procedure, there's a good possibility I'll get to live and be old and hunt and fish and garden — do the things I like to do — and without it, there is no possibility of this. So, I'm going to go do it."

Always the realist, Gregg acknowledged that he has thought of all of the possibilities and has gone ahead with filling out a will and the like.

"I've taken care of things I have to, in case it doesn't go well," said Gregg. "I didn't have a will, or a family plot — it's the responsible thing to do. In 30 or 40 years, I hope I'll need them."

Gregg said he is very appreciative of the stem cell donor drive being held in Fryeburg, but he said he knows it may not only help him but others, as well.

"I graduated from Fryeburg Academy, and we have a real strong alumni community. I haven't actually lived there for 25 years or so, but you maintain the connections over there — I always have, and I probably always will. I certainly appreciate all of their support."

Again, thinking of others, Gregg said, "Having a (stem cell) donor drive over there (in Fryeburg) I think is a great idea. A donor drive is not just about me, it's also about others in my predicament. It's an opportunity to throw a lifeline to someone who's in the situation I'm in. If at least one matches — one person matches another person with cancer — even if it's not me — if it helps one other cancer patient, it's worth it. Therefore, the thought of putting a stem cell donation drive together (at Fryeburg Academy) is great. These donor drives are key in keeping people alive, not only me. Europe has a better stem cell database than we do in this country. We need to work a little harder to get people on the Registry and save more cancer patients. The more people on the (Stem Cell) Registry, the better."

A doctor helped Gregg see the need to speak out

"One of my doctors at the Alfond Center in Augusta told me the wardens wanted to do a (stem cell) donor drive," Gregg explained, speaking of the donor drive recently held in Orono. "He told me, 'You've got an opportunity to get the word out, because of who you are and people recognize you from the TV series "North Woods Law".' I told him I don't want to come across like I'm trying to be self-serving, and he said, 'No, it wasn't really self-serving, because the chances there'll be a match for you in Orono are pretty slim, but pretty good it will match somebody.'"

Asked if he ever imagined just how far and wide the word would spread, Gregg replied, "It went way out there — TV stations, radio, newspapers. It's a good thing, because the more people who put a swab in their mouth the better. So, anyway, I'm glad the doctor had that poignant discussion with me three weeks ago. Cancer's one of those things most people don't want to talk about. I didn't. Since I've been diagnosed, it's all around me — the word comes up — so, it does no good avoiding it. It's not going to go away."

"I have a wife and son I love and a job I really look forward to going to every day," said Gregg. "I've never been a gambler — I've never won anything — the only win I want is that one — that I'm cured."

"The only thing that matters to me is that, a year from now, we do a story that I'm cancer-free, and I'm able to go trout fishing, mow the lawn and go to work," said Gregg.

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