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Hach shows age not always a barrier to cancer therapy

by Sep. 3, 2015, 8:48 AM

Phila Hach, 89, chose to undergo chemotherapy to address her advanced colon cancer. (photo by Brian McCord)

Phila Hach recently celebrated her 89th birthday and she has had much to celebrate over the years.

“I have a wonderful life. I’ve had an exotic life, an eclectic life,” explained Hach.

It is a life that recently included chemotherapy to address advanced colon cancer. Emily Chan, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Medicine and a colon cancer expert at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), suggested that Hach consider chemotherapy, despite her advanced age.

“Physicians sometimes see an elderly person with cancer and assume nothing can be done. Sometimes they don’t even refer them to oncology for a discussion of options,” said Chan. “There is data showing that fit elderly patients benefit from chemotherapy and should not be denied chemotherapy based on age alone.”

Chan noted that there is a difference between chronological age and physiological age. Hach has been active for most of her life and she and her family decided to embark on treatment. Her decision isn’t a surprise for someone who says of herself, “I’m a bold woman, a very bold woman.”

Hach grew up in a large family in which everyone graduated from college — a rarity at the time — with Hach earning a degree from Peabody College. In the late 1940s, before graduating, she started jetting off as a flight attendant for Pan American and American Overseas Airlines.

In 1950, she began a six-year stint as host of what she calls “the first women’s television show in the South.” It was a live cooking show for homemakers that aired on Nashville’s WSM (now WSMV) television.

Hach says she has always been healthy, but last year, after a few days of growing weakness, she was hospitalized and doctors found advanced colon cancer that had already spread to her liver. VICC’s Chan explained that chemotherapy would not cure the cancer but could prolong Hach’s life.

“It didn’t scare me, I wasn’t afraid. It was another journey in my life that I have embraced totally,” said Hach.

The chemotherapy was administered on an outpatient basis. Hach came to the VICC Infusion Clinic and received the chemotherapy for about an hour and a half, then went home with a fanny pack filled with medication administered for two more days through a port surgically implanted in her chest. The process was repeated every two weeks.

This outpatient regimen allows patients the freedom to be home for much of their treatment, and Hach spends that time thinking about food and entertaining.

She lives in Joelton, Tennessee, just outside Nashville on land that has been in her family for generations, where Hach’s son, Joe, and daughter-in-law, Sally, operate the Hachland Hill Vineyard and Spring Creek Inn, a conference center and corporate retreat nestled in the woods with rooms featuring homemade quilts on every bed and a kitchen that serves food based on country cooking recipes.

These days Hach is too fatigued to supervise the kitchen (fatigue is a common side effect of chemotherapy), but in recent months she was still greeting guests on days when she felt strong enough.

Chan believes the therapy was a good choice for a difficult diagnosis.

“This is slowing progression of her disease and the chemo has prolonged her life.”

Hach’s son, Joe, said the family is at peace with his mother’s decision to undertake cancer therapy.

“Although my mother’s prognosis is not great in the not-so-distant future, the chemotherapy did give her another Christmas and birthday with her family. For that we are very appreciative. We actually think she looked forward to her treatment and time at Vanderbilt,” Joe said.

Despite health setbacks, including falls that resulted in hospitalizations, Phila Hach has treated her cancer diagnosis and treatment as another adventure in her long and full life, a life that is now entering its final stages.

“An interesting thing about my life…it’s like a diamond. It has so many facets that I have to remember these facets.”

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