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Scrabble Champion Wins Again with Hodgkin Lymphoma Remission

Joel Wapnick

“Introit” — a piece of music sung or played at the beginning of a worship service. It’s an uncommon word, yet it embodies Joel Wapnick’s life path.

Growing up in Long Island, New York, Joel was taught by his parents to play Scrabble at a young age. “Introit” was a word he used to impress his buddies when playing Scrabble which made him realize his passion for the game.

In 1978, Joel made the move to Montreal, Quebec, where he’d embark on his career as a music education professor. Five years later he won the North American Scrabble Championship — the gateway to his status as a world Scrabble champion. Ironically, Joel would use “introit” in both professions.

In 2015, Joel moved to Cleveland Heights after finding a second chance at love. The 74-year-old enjoyed his time as a newlywed, explored his new city and worked on authoring a few books.

In March 2019, results from routine blood tests revealed concerning irregularities; a monoclonal protein irregularity in his blood was pointing to multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in a type of white blood cell.

Joel was referred to Christy Samaras, DO, a Cleveland Clinic physician who specializes in hematology and medical oncology, for comprehensive examination and extensive testing.

A bone scan ruled out multiple myeloma, but showed a mass-like opacity below his lungs. After 48 different blood tests and surgery to extract cells from the mass for analysis, Joel was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma — a cancer of the lymphatic system that is part of the immune system.

The man who probably knows every word in the dictionary never imagined cancer would be a part of his daily vocabulary. “That was a very emotional time. It was a diagnosis I never expected,” remembers Joel. “I had a few symptoms such as a cough, itching and a racing heart but nothing that would have made me think I had cancer.”

Once diagnosed, Joel was referred to Cleveland Clinic medical oncologist, Matt Kalaycio, MD.

“Because of Joel’s age, it was imperative his treatment was planned for his specific needs. A team of lymphoma experts and I reviewed his case to map out his treatment,” says Dr. Kalaycio. “He was apprehensive about his diagnosis but I assured him that our oncology team was behind him every step of the way.”

Chemotherapy would be the course of care for Joel’s Hodgkin lymphoma. Since he was older, a less toxic regimen spread out over a longer period of time was prescribed to improve his tolerance of the harsh drugs.

“Joel began his first chemotherapy infusion in June and continued once every three weeks for eight months,” explains Dr. Kalaycio.

Joel had a rough go with chemotherapy mentally and physically. “It was so taxing on my mind and body. But I realized the medications that were destroying me were actually my friends because they were destroying the lymphoma,” says Joel.

Like many cancer patients, Joel had a daily laundry list of questions. And as Dr. Kalaycio promised, there was a team member available to help with any concerns.

“Joel and I spoke almost every day. Everything that comes with cancer care is new to patients. I helped him work through things like gastrointestinal problems, rashes and emotional issues,” says Barb Tripp, APRN, CNS, an advance practice nurse at Cleveland Clinic. “It makes me feel satisfied helping patients through this difficult time.”

In December 2019, a complete body scan showed Joel was in remission. “The lymphoma team and I decided Joel should have four more infusions since cancer cells can often hide,” says Dr. Kalaycio.

Joel received his last chemotherapy infusion on Feb. 6, 2020. He continues to be in remission and sees Dr. Kalaycio for follow-up care. He doesn’t call Barb like he used to, but knows she’s there if he needs her. And, he’s gearing up for his next Scrabble tournament as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

“At a time when I needed expert medical care, living in Cleveland put me minutes down the street from one of the best hospitals in the world and with one of the best lymphoma doctors available,” says Joel.

Related Institutes: Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center
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