HEADstrong Heroes: Meet Slate Altenburg

By Drew Haig

For nearly 40 years, Slate Altenburg has been operating his own company in the manufacturing and engineering sphere, specifically focused within the plastics industry. His background as a Chief Engineer for Aerotech gave him the confidence he needed to carve out his own space within the sector. Accompanied by his loving wife Jan, Slate’s story is truly a successful one; underneath the surface however, he has been battling various forms of skin cancer for more than half of the time he has been a business owner.

Slate and Jan live in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains, about 2.5 hours outside the city of Philadelphia. That has been their home for many years, after Slate followed Aerotech’s move from Westchester, NY down to Pennsylvania. For a significant portion of that time, 20 years in fact, Slate has been battling skin cancer and anomalies that ranged in severity. While significant, these health issues were managed without extreme measures and battled with standard treatment plans that allowed Slate to continue living a normal life. That is until an abnormal presentation on Slate’s left jaw last year seemed to have more depth to it than the previous surface level spots, and he became concerned. Combine that with the global pandemic that shutdown treatment for months, and the stakes were never more serious.

Slate visited his Lehigh Valley dermatologist in December. His doctor was able to remove the spot with liquid nitrogen, per the standard operating procedure. However, it quickly reappeared and by March, it had grown significantly. Due to the COVID-19 shutdown, doctors across the board were not seeing patients except in extreme cases. Although concerned, the Altenburg’s opted to sit tight, with limited options to address the situation even if they wanted to.

Monitoring closely throughout the rest of the spring, Slate knew that this presentation was serious. By the beginning of June, it was simply too large to ignore and Slate pushed his doctors for an in-person appointment because the tele-health option was not able to get to the root of the issue. Although it took several more weeks before his doctor could see him, the appointment immediately resulted in troubling news after the biopsy.

Slate was diagnosed with Porocarcinoma of skin, which is an unusual and very aggressive form of skin cancer.

“There are only 541 recorded cases,” said Slate. “All of a sudden, a little bump similar to other little bumps threw me into an entirely different class of treatment.”

This particular form of cancer is so rare that Slate and Jan spent the weekend researching not only his diagnosis, but also treatment centers that may be able to help. It was important that Slate enter into care that was both a full-treatment center, and with a research division. While he was appreciative of the care that he initially received at FoxChase, Slate quickly opted for the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania because of their wide treatment resources.

When Slate was finally able to get a ct scan in the beginning of July, doctors learned that his tumor was 3mm in size, and that the cancer had spread to his right clavicle and sternum. By the time the tumor was removed just a month later, it had doubled in size. The surgery was so intense that doctors needed to excavate half of Slate’s jaw and the surrounding tissue to ensure they had removed all of the cancer. On top of treatment and removal surgery, Slate required reconstructive surgery to put his jawbone and skull structure back to normal.

In a turn of good fortune, the Altenburg’s learned about Nick’s House through their case worker, Tracy. Most if not all residential institutions or organizations were forced to close their doors or were at complete capacity due to COVID. Luckily, there was a space available for them at Nick’s House.

“We had no idea what it would be like before we got there. We couldn’t believe it,” said Slate. “Nick’s House is beautiful, and they’ve set it up with amenities that unless they knew what cancer patients needed, they wouldn’t be there. Having a top-notch blender is so necessary. Soft toothbrushes. Just little things that wouldn’t normally be in a house like this or a hotel. . . probably the greatest thing here is that each one of us is here because we have a cancer that can’t be taken care of locally. I start talking to the other individuals and find out that they also have something very distinct and unique and all of a sudden I’m not going to die of terminal uniqueness,” jokes Altenburg. “They all have something like this. We become family here because we are all going through this incredibly difficult experience together.”

Slate is currently in radiation treatment at UPENN for another three weeks. His tumor was pressing on his thyroid and esophagus, and so it was necessary to receive the proton therapy that only a limited number of hospitals can offer. Nick’s House was so important because on top of the cost of treatment, the Altenburg’s would have paid $11,550 to stay in a commercial hotel, aside from the travel costs that would be involved. The generosity and support of the HEADstrong community ensures that patients and their families can stay at Nick’s House at no cost.

“My wife has been able to cook meals and do all kinds of things that we would do at home,” said Slate. “We prepare meals at home on the weekend, and bring it down and there is plenty of space. Means we don’t have to go to restaurants or do carry out which is a tremendous savings. We also are eating what we want and need! The people also help get us through it. The Camp family still had a few packages here and Jan and I are able to pick up their packages and bring them to him because they are now inpatient. Nick’s House makes it feel like you are working with your brother, so to say.”