Aspiring boxer beats rare cancer with support of medical team across three countries

A young man living in India is looking forward to getting back in the boxing ring after travelling to Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, an integral part of Mubadala Health, for life-saving cancer surgery.

Rakshith Doreswamygowda was just 17 years old when he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of abdominal cancer, according to a press release issued by Cleveland Clinic on Sunday. He had been living with severe back pain for months that he initially thought was caused by playing sports at school.

After ignoring the pain to focus on his final exams, he finally visited a local clinic where doctors prescribed him painkillers. Seeing no improvement over the next few months, he finally visited a hospital in Bengaluru, where testing revealed he was suffering from desmoplastic small round cell tumours (DSRCT). Given the complexity of his case, doctors in Bengaluru told Rakshith they couldn’t treat him.

“My heart broke with the news of my diagnosis and lack of treatment options. All my dreams of becoming a boxer and going to college were in ruins. I’m the only son to my parents who have sacrificed so much to give me the best possible chance in life. I didn’t want to give up because I am my family’s hope and I have so much I want to do. I searched online and found a doctor in the US who is an expert in this type of cancer and wrote to her for help,” Rakshith said.

Dr. Andrea Hayes-Jordan, a paediatric surgical oncologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, replied to Rakshith, suggesting he begins chemotherapy in India before travelling to the United States for surgery. After his initial rounds of chemotherapy, Rakshith’s visa applications to the United States were rejected and he was unable to travel for his surgery. Dr. Hayes-Jordan then referred him to Dr. Yasir Akmal, a surgical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, who she trusted, to perform his life saving surgery.

“When Rakshith came to Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, he had already been through so much trying to get to the right place to have surgery. Having worked with Dr. Hayes-Jordan on another case, she referred him to us when it became clear he wouldn’t be able to travel to the United States. He’s a fighter and that spirit really carried him through his care and led to a great outcome,” Dr. Akmal said.

Delays in waiting for a visa to travel to the United States meant that rather than receiving the 12 rounds of chemotherapy a patient with DSRCT would normally have before surgery, Rakshith had already undergone more than 20 chemo sessions by the time he arrived at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi in March 2021.

“I was very depressed at my inability to be treated in the US. When Dr. Hayes-Jordan recommended Dr. Akmal in Abu Dhabi, I found some hope again. The next challenge was getting to the UAE, luckily my uncle and I managed to get seats on one of the last planes to the Emirates from India before flights were suspended due to the pandemic. From that moment on, I knew I was in safe hands,” Rakshith said.

More than two years after being diagnosed, Rakshith’s surgery took place on 10th May 2021, his 20th birthday. A team of surgeons worked for more than sixteen hours, removing more than 50 tumours from his abdomen, including two particularly large and complex growths around his pancreas and in his pelvic region next to his bladder and rectum. After removing all the visible tumours, the team used a single dose of heated chemotherapy drugs delivered directly to his abdomen to destroy any cancer cells that remained, preventing them from developing into tumours.

“Rakshith’s surgery was very complex and took a multidisciplinary team including a urologist, colorectal surgeon and even a transplant surgeon to ensure that everything went smoothly. The location of the two large tumours was especially challenging and many physicians had told him they couldn’t be removed without causing permanent damage to his rectum and bladder. I’m pleased to say that we were able to work together to make sure we removed all his tumours and avoided any lasting damage, enabling him to live a normal life post-surgery,” Dr. Akmal continued.
Following his successful surgery, Rakshith returned home to India where he continues to receive follow-up care from local doctors. Once fully recovered, he plans to attend college to study microbiology and pursue his dream of becoming a boxer.

“My cancer taught me so many life lessons. I endured a lot of pain over the last three years and I am so grateful to Dr. Akmal and the whole team who treated me with such kindness while I was in Abu Dhabi. I always felt that they had time for me and my silly questions and before I left, Dr. Akmal gave me a pair of boxing gloves which are very special for me. I hope to repay the gift of life he has given me one day. I want to box to prove to society that even having had cancer, I can come back stronger,” Rakshith said.

Rakshith’s treatment journey attracted a great deal of attention and support within his local community and beyond, including the writer and film director Nagathihalli Chandrashekhar who offered him and his family essential support as he battled his cancer. His care team at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi continues to follow up with him remotely using the hospital’s virtual visit platform to make sure his recovery goes well. Staff at the hospital are also excited to see what comes next for him as he finally looks to the future after a bruising three-year fight with cancer.

“It was a pleasure to care for Rakshith as he is a very determined person. Despite the grave situation he was facing, he had a great attitude and was very involved in his care, doing a lot of research to find the right treatment and the right doctors. His story is also one of physicians coming together not just across disciplines here at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi but across borders as throughout this ordeal, Rakshith’s care team spanned three countries. I’m sure that after beating one of the most formidable opponents there is, he will go on to achieve great things,” Dr. Akmal concluded.

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