Christina Cheakalos
November 26, 2001 12:00 PM

On Nov. 23,1999, John Ormond was putting on his shoes when he was knocked off the sofa by a tsunami of pure fear. His heart hammering, the left side of his body twitching, he passed out. Minutes later, he says, “I woke up across the room, wedged under the glass coffee table.”

Ormond, now 46, had been experiencing such symptoms—though milder—daily for 15 years. Doctors chalked them up to panic attacks. “I got tired of hearing I was unstable,” says the Roseburg, Ore., native, an actor who has had bit parts on soaps including All My Children. A few months earlier a neurologist had ordered an MRI, but Ormond’s HMO turned it down. This episode convinced him that the problem wasn’t in his mind. He took a subway from his Brooklyn apartment to the emergency room of Long Island College Hospital, where he was given both an MRI and a CT scan.

Ormond, it turned out, had been suffering from seizures brought on by a malignant tumor the size of an orange. A neurologist told him that he had three months to live. Along with horror, Ormond says, he felt a sense of inevitability. “I’m the fourth generation of my family to get one,” he says of the brain cancer, anaplastic astrocytoma, that felled his mother, grandfather and great-grandmother in their 30s and 40s. The disease strikes 600 Americans annually, killing 70 percent within 5 years.

But thanks to an experimental procedure performed at Duke University Medical Center, Ormond and others may beat the odds. Normally doctors deal with malignant brain tumors by removing the growth and surrounding tissue and treating the patient with radiation and chemotherapy. Some cancer cells invariably escape, however, and the tumor returns. In the Duke therapy, pioneered by neuro-oncologist Darell Bigner, monoclonal antibodies—natural tumor-fighting cells—are harvested from mice, loaded with radioactive iodine and injected into the human brain. “The antibody is the missile, and the iodine is the warhead,” says Henry Friedman, codirector of Duke’s program, which has treated 200 others with similar tumors in the past five years. Studies indicate that two years after the therapy, 60 percent show no new tumors.

After removing Ormond’s tumor on Jan. 13,2000, surgeons injected the iodine-laced antibodies through a plastic tube into the hole left behind. To protect other patients, Ormond spent five days after the hour-long operation isolated in a lead-lined room. “Every day they came in with a Geiger counter to see how much radiation was coming off me,” says Ormond, who later was given external radiation treatment and chemotherapy. He developed temporary bone-marrow damage as a result of the regimen and still has short-term memory loss. Yet the risks, he says, were worth taking: “I decided to go with it not only to honor my family members but all those devastated by this disease.”

Ormond was just 6 when his mother, Mary, died at 36, leaving behind four children. Raised in L.A. by his father, LaMar, 76, a psychologist, and his stepmother, Joyce, he discovered acting at California State University in Sacramento. Along with a career, he found a lifelong friend in fellow student Tom Hanks. After the diagnosis the star turned up at Ormond’s hospital bedside. “He said, ‘What can I do?’ ” recalls Ormond, who refused an offer of financial help but accepted a laptop computer fore-mailing friends from the hospital.

Today he’s cancer-free. “John could conceivably live a normal lifespan,” says Friedman. Ormond, who is single, is writing If I Only Had a Brain: A Survivor’s Story, a show that will be performed Off-Broadway and whose proceeds will go to Duke’s Brain Tumor Center. (He lives on Social Security disability payments.) He has also become an activist, lobbying Congress to fund brain-tumor research. “I believe people who have hope fight the hardest and live the longest,” he says. “I want to give hope to others.”

Christina Cheakalos

Giovanna Breu in Chicago

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