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As chair of the Manistee County Board of Commissioners, his schedule can be a daunting mix of committee assignments, meetings, fundraisers and other official obligations.

On Wednesday, he joined with other members of the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. The event aimed to celebrate Pat and Anita Shaffer, owners of Port City Emporium, in their store’s relocation on River Street.

Few who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony likely knew that Dontz had just flown in from Texas earlier that week.


Every month for the past five years Dontz has traveled to Houston to participate in an exclusive clinical trial placing the lifelong Manistee resident at the forefront of cancer research.

This month’s trip held added significance, as doctors marked five years in complete remission of the rare form of cancer which had almost claimed his life.

For those diagnosed with cancer, the five-year benchmark can be seen as a sort of milestone — the time in which they transition from patient to survivor.

Dontz looks at his five-year survival a little differently.

Reflecting on the milestone, he sees a renewed focus on those principals that have served him in local government and which helped him through his life-threatening experience.

“I don’t live my life worrying about the cancer to a degree but … that’s me,” Dontz said. “There’s so many stages of cancer that people go through from an emotional standpoint and I am not a person who is going to ever have a personal pity party because I believe I’ve been extremely blessed on many levels.”

The diagnosis

In 2009, Dontz had been traveling overseas under the employment of Shell Oil Company.

While stationed in Nigeria, he received disturbing news from back home.

“Really, what led to my diagnosis was the physical (exam) I took to work offshore,” Dontz had said in a prior interview. “The company nurse down in Houston contacted my wife when I was overseas. She told Jennifer that I needed to go home to get another blood test done.”

Back in the states, Dontz was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, affecting just 15,000 patients in the United States.

Lymphoma in general is the most common blood cancer, occurring when cells of the immune system called lymphocytes grow and multiply uncontrollably, according to the Mayo Clinic website. Cancerous lymphocytes can travel to the lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow or other organs in the body, and form tumors.

Mantle cell lymphoma gets its name because the tumor cells originate from the mantle zone of the lymph node, states a report published in the National Library of Medicine.

Symptoms of mantle cell lymphoma include loss of appetite and weight, fever, night sweats, nausea or vomiting, swollen lymph nodes, heartburn, belly pain or bloating and a sense of fullness or discomfort from enlarged tonsils, liver or spleen, according to the WebMD cancer center.

“As I look back at what my body was going through in those days,” Dontz had said in 2017, “I bet I had dealt with it at least three years before the diagnosis if not more.”

Early treatment

After his diagnosis, Dontz was subjected to a litany of cancer treatments that included several chemotherapy sessions.

During these treatments, Dontz twice went into septic shock, caused by a serious and sudden drop in blood pressure, which can lead to organ failure, stroke or even death, states the Mayo Clinic website.

“For over a year, I could tell I was going south,” Dontz had said in 2017. “I was having a hard time dealing, physically and internally. I just knew things were not going well.”

In the years to follow, he continued to manage the illness — taking prescribed drugs for chemo maintenance and monitoring his body regularly through annual positron emission tomography scans — all while balancing life, work and public service.

He was also running low on options.

Clinical Trial

Dontz first served as a commissioner from 1994 to 2002, but when he returned in 2014 he did so post-diagnosis of mantle cell lymphoma.

Dontz had been managing his disease since 2008 before he announced publicly and to fellow board members that he would be heading for Houston to participate in a clinical trial of Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-Cell therapy.

It was a decision that may have saved his life.

CAR T is a type of immunotherapy that involves taking a patient’s own immune cells — specifically white blood cells, or T-cells — and reprogramming them to attack tumors after they’re reintroduced to the blood stream, according to cancer.org

Dr. Michael Wang, Mantle Cell Lymphoma Program of Excellence founder and current director, administered the trial at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

founding and current Director of the Mantle Cell Lymphoma (MCL) Program of Excellence.

March 1, 2017 marked day zero.

His T-cells, which were collected months earlier and sent to a lab in California for multiplication and modification, were now reintroduced to his blood stream.

Dontz’s wife Jennifer was by her husband’s side for the 15-day hospital stay that followed the infusion. And no better description exists than the excerpts from her day-by-day documentation of their journey:

• Day zero: “When they were ready to administer the cells, there were seven people in the room just watching,” she writes. “I would describe their mood like kids in a candy factory. So fascinated and excited.

“(Our eldest son) Joe summed it up perfectly at dinner tonight: He said he felt like we were watching (and) making history.”

• Day six: “Fever has arrived. It started around 1:30 am and has been literally up and down all day. Jeff is hot one hour, shaking violently the next,” she writes. “Fever has spiked this evening to a new record, 104.9.

“The nurse was scurrying around trying to get it under control. They don’t want him to have seizures.”

• Day seven: “Jeff had a super rough night. Not much rest in between bouts of high fever and chills. His blood pressure was low as well as oxygen levels.”

• Day eight: “When the nurse came in this morning, Jeff said, ‘I’m done! I quit!’ Unfortunately, that is not an option,” she writes. “Dr. (Michael) Wang was in today. He hopes storm one is finished, but he looked at me and said, ‘Get ready for storm two.’ Lord help us Hang on for the ride!

“In the evening, we noticed some very subtle changes in Jeff. He was acting a little ‘fuzzy’ and his eyes had a strange, glazed look about them,” she continued. “Confusion. They did the usual neurological questions and he failed some of them. At that point they want to really watch the brain, so they said they would put him into (intensive care unit) and order a CAT scan.

“We had to pack up all of our stuff that was in the room and get into the car.”

• Day nine: “(We) didn’t get one single wink of sleep,” she writes. “Our experience in the ICU was not good for a number of reasons. … They did move him back to a regular room this evening. It was very good to be out of ICU.”

• Day 11: “Today started another roller coaster ride,” she writes. “He failed the writing test miserably! … We were told it takes many parts of the brain to write, so they really take that part of the (neurological) test to heart.

“(The nurse) announced that (Wang) ordered a steroid! Jeff and I both sat up because that was the drug we didn’t want to hear. We were told that could or could not affect the T-cells and the job they were doing.

“Again, this is uncharted territory. They just don’t know.”

• Day 12: “During the night, things got worse,” she writes. “Rock bottom bad is how I would describe it.

“We were told to pack up. We were on our way to the ICU again.”

• Day 13: “We should get moved to a regular room today.”

• Day 14: “IV cords are now off. Yay!”

aftermath

In the years that followed, Dontz continued his monthly check-ups in Houston, and while the five-year milestone doesn’t close the book on either the trial or his PET scans, it has provided him and his family with a “sense of relief.”

“I was expecting a good report this time. I don’t always expect that. This time I thought for sure I would, and I was glad that it came through,” he said. “I don’t want to use the term guinea pig but I’m in a clinical trial and I suspect I’m going to be in some form of that or another till the day I pass.”

Since Dontz started his clinical trial, other treatments for mantle cell lymphoma have been developed, and as a public figure has joined with other cancer patients at focus groups to discuss the disease.

“When I was going through it (there) wasn’t a whole lot of people to communicate, about the prognosis and looking into the future. And what I try to tell people, there’s opportunity — there’s options out there and having the right perspective and having a positive attitude. You have a heck of a difference on how you wind up coming out of it as well,” he said.

Dontz said his battle with cancer helped sharpen his perspective on life.

“The lesson I learned is we have most of the control of our life by the decisions we make,” Dontz continued.

“There are obviously exceptions, but by and large, we control our own destiny. … If you sit back and let life come to you chances are you’re probably not going to have as much success.”

Describing himself as “blessed,” Dontz said the experience has also helped to renew his commitment as a county commissioner.

“When you’re confronted with a challenge that tends to be life threatening and you get on the other side of that foreseeable future, it allows me to have more courage making decisions,” he said. “The reason I’m doing what I do is because I want to have a prosperous area for our citizens so our children and our grandchildren, if they want to stay here, cannot only just survive, but also prosper.”

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