Tag Archive for: AML patient

AML Patient Profile: Jordan Supino

As Jordan Supino shares his acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patient story, it’s quite striking to hear his love of life and passion for helping others. Calling himself “The Cancer Killer,” Jordan has an inspiring dedication to fitness, faith, family, finance, and fun, for overall health and wellness. He shares the perspective he’s gained, “People need to understand that there’s a purpose for everything. We go through situations, and you have to see it for what it is. What’s the message? You may be listening to the doctor, but you need to hear what it’s preparing you for. I believe that everything that we go through in life is truly preparing us to grow later in life. If you learn to start cooperating instead of chasing, those tests will become your testimony for the world. There’s a greater good in learning to help others.”

As for Jordan’s cancer journey, it began with being hit with hot and cold sweats along with major leg cramps that he’d never experienced before. He dismissed the symptoms and returned for a gym workout a few days later when his body started trembling, which brought on a partial collapse and his legs becoming locked up in extreme pain. Jordan was diagnosed with AML in July 2011, which led to him being hospitalized for about two months while he received high-dose chemotherapy.

After completing that round of chemotherapy, Jordan’s doctors informed him that he’d need to return for his next round of chemo in 4-1/2 weeks and to prepare for a bone marrow transplant. Much to his doctors’ surprise, he vowed to them that God would be granting him a miracle and that the power of his mindset would eliminate the cancer and any thought of a bone marrow transplant. Jordan further promised that he’d bench press 500 pounds before his next round of chemo to demonstrate the power that can come from the combined power of one’s faith and mindset and the cancer would disappear.

When Jordan was in the hospital, he had hundreds of people go to visit him. He recalls about the visits, “I was just blown away by all these people. And a lot of them I didn’t know or couldn’t remember. They were sharing stories with me about how they’d crossed paths with me sometime in my life. Whether it was some words of wisdom that I gave them or helped them pay a bill or took them to dinner or something, they felt indebted to come pay it back to me. And I felt like if God decides to take me now, I’m okay with that, but I’m not ready just yet.” He knew he’d done a lot of good in the world helping people but felt that his work wasn’t finished yet. 

Jordan continued with his chemotherapy treatment for 4 months. But he decided that he wanted to do some shopping for gifts before Christmas. Jordan wore a mask and bundled up for his shopping outing, but another test hit Jordan on December 27 when he woke up with a 107-degree temperature and was partially blind. He collapsed at the hospital and went through enduring pneumonia, heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure, blood clots, fluid-filled and blood-filled lungs, bloodline infections, full septic shock, and a 24-day induced coma. Jordan’s body and spirit weren’t ready to surrender, however. He woke up, and his doctors told him it could take up to a month to start walking again. Jordan blew away that estimate and was walking in two days. His doctors also told him it could take up to a year for his full recovery, but he gained 50 pounds in six weeks and was unrecognizable to hospital ICU staff due to his drastic health change.

While in the hospital, Jordan made it part of his routine to help others. He recalls of his hospital stays,
“I made it a point to not just survive adversity, because I’m someone who thrives against adversity. People tell me I’m a cancer survivor, but I say that I’m a cancer killer and that I rise above it. You can’t control what happens to you in life, but you can control how you react. It sounds cliche, but how many people actually hear it? How many people actually adopt it? How many people actually apply it and see the results of it? I’m a walking testament to that.” Jordan decided to help other people in the hospital who didn’t have visitors to see them. Hospital staff called him affectionately “Dr. Real Deal or No Deal.” The doctors would call him when people were having a hard time or felt like giving up. He’d visit several people each day and sit with them. And Jordan would learn about them or tell them stories from his life. “Whether I was preaching to them, laughing, doing some cardio down the hallways, or just getting them moving and grooving and feeling good about themselves; it was so magical to see all these people just start living. They stopped saying, ‘Why me’ and started adopting the ‘Why not me?’” Hospital staff brought in creative items where the staff and patients created inspirational artwork with motivational sayings that made an immediate impact and has continued to do so over the years. The huge pieces of artwork were transferred to the new oncology unit in a new building and are still making an impact on patients and their families today. 

As for advice for other cancer patients, Jordan shares, “I don’t allow myself to stress. I don’t allow myself to create anxiety. And I don’t allow myself to get depressed. If I feel anything trying to creep up on me, I find these different things to do to get myself through and grow. Whether it’s going out and getting some sun or going out and feeding the ducks and meditating by a pond or going for a walk knowing that when the body moves the brain grooves or putting on some music or lifting some weights at the gym, knowing how to control your mindset is key. You have to know that you’re in control, and you have to act like the change you want has already happened. When you’re feeling bad, just punch it in the mouth to get better. How much have you ever pushed yourself to the limit? You become a little bit stronger and a little bit wiser from pushing yourself. Life is all about perspective in any situation we go through.”

Jordan has come to many realizations over the span of his life and time with cancer. He believes in changing your environment to what you need. “When you’re struck with adversity and things like cancer, it’s okay to rest, but there’s still more work to be done. This is your story and the card that you’ve been dealt to serve a bigger purpose. If the hospital food isn’t cutting it, find a friend who can cook. If you’ve got a negative person around you, find someone who’s joyful. If that person who’s hugging you isn’t a good hugger, get a good hugger. If you don’t like that background music, change the music. This is your world, and you become what you surround yourself with. You need to just focus on being the best version of you. If you stop chasing and start seeing cancer as the gift that it may possibly be, then you’ll learn how to cooperate and to ultimately become just an amazing masterpiece and things for others to witness.”

Through his work, Jordan coaches people one on one – emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, financially – whatever the case may be. And for those facing a cancer diagnosis, he poses this question, “Do you want to live, or do you want to die? I want to live. You die only once. You live every day. I’m going to live and enjoy blessings, prosperity, and goodness in helping others.”

The Importance of Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patient Empowerment

The Importance of Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patient Empowerment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Why is acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patient empowerment vital? How can acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients become empowered? AML expert Dr. Catherine Lai from Penn Medicine explains how she helps empower her patients and why educating patients is a vital part of their care.

[ACT]IVATION TIP from Dr. Lai: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to ask about resources and other ways to get information, you want the right resources, so not necessarily…everything on Google is accurate, but there are lots of good resources out there that can give you the information needed so that you can make educated decisions.”

Download Resource Guide

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Dr. Lai: 

It’s important to empower patients so that we’re making the best decision for them…that’s in line with their goals. I think that one of the main reasons why I love what I do is because I’m able to participate in the patient’s journey, and that journey doesn’t always mean that a patient has to live longer.

So I try to ask patients or do as patients, what are their…short- and long-term goals, do they have life events that they want to get to, is there a wedding coming up, a grandchild or something that I can help them get them to so that we can make a decision together that is taking into consideration their life outside of clinic and outside of the hospital.

I like to try to spend a lot of time with my patients educating them. Some people say I sometimes give them too much information, but I don’t feel like patients can make good decisions without being properly informed. So an educated patient makes a much better…makes a much better decision than somebody who doesn’t have the information.

And then I would also say it’s important to emphasize that you and your provider and our advanced practice provider and the social worker, we’re all a part of the same team that we all want the best outcome for the patient. And so knowing that, that you have a team of people that are taking care of you and that you really need to embrace learning and understanding as much as possible so that you can make the best decision about your short-term and long-term plan for yourself. So activation tip here is don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to ask about resources and other ways to get information, you want the right resources, so not necessarily…everything on Google is accurate, but there are lots of good resources out there that can give you the information needed so that you can make educated decisions.

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30-Year Acute Myeloid Leukemia Survivor Shares His Journey

30-Year Acute Myeloid Leukemia Survivor Shares His Journey from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What might acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients experience for symptoms, treatment, and coping with AML? AML patient and Empowerment Lead Art Flatau shares the experience of his AML journey from diagnosis, through treatment and AML survival, and advancements in AML treatments.

Art also shares his empowerment advice for patients and care partners to ensure optimal care and how he has found a sense of purpose in patient advocacy efforts.

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Advice for Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients Seeking a Clinical Trial

Advice for Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients Seeking a Clinical Trial 


My name is Art, and I live in Austin, Texas. In 1992, I was 31 and married with two young children. I was in graduate school and working full-time. For a couple weeks, I had been feeling tired and had been running a low-grade fever. I also had a lot of bruises, probably because I was playing rugby at the time. I thought the fatigue was because I was overworked and getting  too little sleep.

On Saturday, I had a rugby game but was too tired to play more than a few minutes. The next day, I was too tired to do much. My wife and I decided that I would go to the doctor on Monday. 

Monday morning, I woke, and there was blood on my pillow as my gums were bleeding. My wife wanted to take me to the ER, but I convinced her to just call our doctor. I went to the doctor later that morning. She noted my symptoms, did a quick exam, and sent me for blood work. After lunch, she called and said I needed to go to the hospital and see a hematologist. I knew I was in trouble.

We talked to the doctor and he said, “We have to see what kind of leukemia you have.” What a shock.  I knew that I was sick with something I had not had before. The fact that it was cancer was a shock. I didn’t know that there were different types of leukemia but soon found out that I had acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

That evening, I received platelets and red blood transfusions. The next morning, I had a bone marrow biopsy, more platelets, and surgery to put in a central line. That afternoon, less than 24 hours after hearing the word leukemia in reference to me, I started chemotherapy. This was all overwhelming. We had no way to understand what our options were or to get a second opinion.

Three-and-a-half weeks later, I got out of the hospital with no hair, 25 pounds lighter, a lot weaker but alive. I had more chemotherapy in the next few weeks and more hospitalizations. A few months later, I was finished with chemo. I regained some strength, regrew my hair, and tried to get my life back to normal.

In early 1993, about 9 months after being diagnosed, we got another shock, I had relapsed. I needed to have a bone marrow transplant. Although we had a little time, a few days to figure out where to go for a transplant, we were again struggling to understand the process. We were also struggling to figure out how to move to Dallas for three more months for the transplant. The transplant was a long grind, a month or so in the hospital, a couple of months of going to the outpatient clinic two to three times a week, but we made it through. 

Now, 30 years later, I’m still around. My children graduated from high school, college, and graduate school and have successful careers. My wife and I are empty-nesters.  I am still working but hoping to retire in a few years. Although I consider myself very lucky to have survived and have had relatively few side effects, I do have some side effects to deal with, including low testosterone.

Some things that I’ve learned during my AML journey include: 

  • AML is a rare disease: The good news is that over the last several years a lot of new treatments have been discovered for AML. These new treatments are leading to more people surviving AML. However, these new treatments are evolving rapidly. It is important to find a cancer center and doctors who treat a lot of patients with leukemia. 
  • Consider volunteering: Advocacy work is an excellent way to help yourself and to support other patients and continued research efforts.
  • If something doesn’t feel right with your health, advocate for yourself and ask for further testing.

These actions (for me) are key to staying on my path to empowerment.

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Advocacy Tips From an AML Patient

Advocacy Tips from an AML Patient from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

AML patient and Empowerment Lead, Sasha Tanori, shares her advocacy tips, and the importance of being honest and open with your oncologist.

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Sasha Tanori:

Okay, so my number one thing, I guess I could…a tip sort of that I can give to women specifically or non-gendered people, if you want kids, I would definitely say to talk to your doctor as soon as you find out, even before you start doing the chemo, if you can just really, really talk to them and see, I think there’s anything that they can do for preserving your eggs for the future, because even though it may seem like you know it’s just no, not big deal. Not everyone gets the opportunity again. I know there are some people out there who might be able to, but it’s not a guarantee. And it sucks to have that opportunity kind of taken from you in a way, and I know it’s not something that you’re thinking like, “Oh well, it’s life for death.” And…yeah, I understand, and I get that, but in the moment, it may feel that way, but you never know how are you going to feel five, six years down the line when you’re pushing 30 and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, My opportunity is gone. You know, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

So that would be my number one tip. Definitely to be honest. Be honest and open with your oncologist, find some type of tips or tricks, or even if you just need someone to talk to about the infertility…it’s definitely worth it. Another thing I would say is to be really, really open with your oncologist about everything you’re going through. Nothing is too embarrassing and I know that’s a lot easier said than done, but I think being honest about what you’re going through, whether it’s mentally, if you’re going through depression, anxiety, if you’re having suicidal thoughts or tendencies, that’s definitely something you should talk to your oncologist about, so they can help you reach out to find some type of counseling. Mental health is very, very important when it comes to this. Your mental health will make or break you during this journey, and you have to find some type of close community, whether it’s your friends, your friends, your family, or just your oncology team, like someone that you could reach out to and talk to about everything, lay it all on the table and now I’m feeling guilty because I survived that my friend didn’t, or I’m feeling anxious because I have the scan coming up, and this is the third one in like two months, you know? There’s so much things that are going on in your head and to keep it to yourself, it’s a lot and it’s not fair to you, you need to be able to speak up and tell people what you’re going through, it doesn’t matter who it is if it’s your friend, your mom, even your oncologist, but they’re going to understand and they’re going to help you.

There are lots of resources out there that will definitely make this a lot easier. Another tip I would say is, talk to your oncologist about the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to your side effects because if you stay quiet about it, you’re going to really regret it. There have been many times where I was just too embarrassed to be like, :Oh you know what, I have this really bad rash on my butt, and I don’t know what to do about it.” So finally, they’re like, “Why didn’t you say something? Oh yeah, we can give you a cream, or we can do this or that for you.” And you’re just like, “Oh, okay, that feels so much better. Thank you.” But at the time, you’re probably just like, “Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed, I don’t want anybody to know about this. I don’t even want to tell my parents, I don’t want to tell my friends.” But I mean, this is all related to your cancer journey, one bad side effect can lead to something else, which could lead to something else. So it’s very, very good to try and be open and honest when it comes to your side effects, your emotions, your body, if you’re gaining weight or losing weight, if you’re losing your hair again, if you’re losing your eyebrows, you know talk to them, find out if there’s any solutions that can help because…

It’ll definitely make a big difference. I would say definitely another big thing would be to try and build a community through social media. Having friends or even just strangers on your feed that you see go through the same things you go through makes you feel so much less alone. I have been able to… I’m very happy that I’ve been able to make friends on social media through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, just start adding everybody goes on Facebook groups that are specifically for AML, so you can just type in AML recovery, AMLl survivors, AML, family groups, caregivers. There’s a lot of things out there that are definitely beneficial and it helps to talk to others about it, so you feel less alone. Definitely. So I think those would be my biggest tips for expressing your advocacy.

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How I Overcame Biases During AML Treatment

How I Overcame Biases During AML Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

AML patient and Empowerment Lead, Sasha Tanori, shares how she had to overcome several biases to get doctors to take her symptoms seriously.

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Sasha Tanori:

So, of course, I can’t speak for everybody, but of course for me, I am Mexican American, I’m from a little small area called The Imperial Valley, it’s like at the very, very bottom of California, and it’s literally like 20 minutes away from Mexico. So right off the bat, I experienced a lot of low-income poverty type of bias, I guess you could say. And then being plus size, that was another thing when I initially first went…I remember one of the first things that they told me, I was like, “Well, first of all, you’re obese, and you need to lose weight.” And I was like, “Well, I have to deal with the bruises?”  And they were like, “Well, maybe your body.” They’re just coming up with different excuses as to why, maybe it’s because I have this problem or that problem, and I was just like, “Well, no, I don’t really think that’s the issue.” So then they had misdiagnosed me, I got sent home and then when I had went back to the hospital, that was another thing they brought up again, I was in the hospital, because I had a giant bruise on my lower back, and it was like I looked like a tire mark. And they were like, “Okay, well, it says here that your BMI is high.” And I’m like, But what…what does me being plus-sized have to do with the giant bruise on my back? This doesn’t make any sense.” No correlation, nothing.

So that was another big thing that just has always irritated me my entire life, I’ve always been a pretty big chubby girl, so if I had hurt myself they would always bring up my weight somehow it’s just like, that is looking to do with me breaking a bone or me having the cold or something dumb like that. So that was another thing that kind of bugged me whenever I was first diagnosed, they would always kind of bring up your weight, and another thing is that because I live in a low-income community, we don’t have resources like cancer doctors down here, I think there’s like maybe two and they’re not even in my local town, they’re in the town over. That’s like a 10-minute drive. So when I was first diagnosed, I was at the hospital for 12 hours. I was there with my mom and they had no clue what was wrong with me, so then I got sent to San Diego, which is like two-and-a-half hours away, and when as soon as I got there, within like 30 minutes, I was diagnosed with cancer.

So that’s how quickly they were able to catch it and everything, but in my local town they had no clue what was wrong, they didn’t know it was cancer, they didn’t know what was going on. They just kept doing tests after tests after tests, and they’re on blood work, and finally, they were just like, “We have no clue, we’ve got to send you somewhere else. You’ve got to get in an ambulance and leave.” So we were just like, “Okay.” So yeah, that was definitely something that…it has a lot to do with my culture. I live in a small mostly Mexican-driven city location, I guess the Imperial Valley is like a valley, I guess it has five or six different little towns all put together, so a majority of us are Mexican, so we’re considered low-income poverty, we don’t have a lot compared to when it comes to bigger towns like LA or San Diego or San Francisco, but yeah, I think those were my biggest issues. And then, of course, being a woman. No matter what, you’re always going to get that. People aren’t going to take you serious. We’re going to get that, “Oh, man, she’s just overreacting. She’s on her period,” or your typical misogynist stuff that people say about you. But those are my biggest things or I guess adversities that I had to go through when it came to my cancer journey.

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What I Wish I Knew Before My AML Diagnosis

What I Wish I Knew Before My AML Diagnosis from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML patient and Empowerment Lead, Sasha Tanori, shares what she wishes she knew and what to ask before her AML diagnosis, and the importance of advocacy.

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Advocacy Tips From an AML Patient


Sasha Tanori:

So, one of the biggest things I wish I knew, especially before, was the whole saving your eggs type thing for fertility. That’s one of the biggest things that I honestly really regret because here it is almost what…five, six years later, and I, unfortunately, am infertile, so it really does suck because that was something that I was really looking forward to in my life was like being a parent or being a mom, and at the time, it’s just like…everything happened so fast, it was like, Okay, we’re going to…We did the chemo, and now we’re going to do a couple more rounds and then it’s like, Oh, we found a donor, so you could have your bone marrow transplant…oh my gosh, I can’t say the word, your bone marrow transplant. I think I had mentioned it to my doctor, but he was like, “Well, if we wait, now we’re going to lose the person who’s going to donate to you.” And I was like, “Okay, well, we need to hurry up and get that done, get it over with.

So back then, I really wish I would have advocated for myself more, ask more questions and because thinking back, I’m like, I don’t mind if I would have waited until after having my eggs frozen to find another donor, I think that possibly there could have been someone else out there.

But I think it was just in such of that state of mind of like, “I need to hurry and get this done. It’s life or death, I’m going to possibly die type of situation.” But you know I’m like, “No, I think I would have been okay if I would have waited another month or so until after I froze the eggs.” But you live and you learn, and there’s not really much you can do about it now, unfortunately. But at the time, I really wish that I would have spoken up and advocated for myself more if I would have known that that was going to happen, because like I said, five years later infertile can’t really do anything about it, you know? Yeah, my life is saved, but I can’t have kids though, so you just kind of think it heartedly about it, but yeah, that’s one of the things I really wish I would have advocated for myself more about. For now, I think everything else has been kind of…it’s been good. I mean, I’ve taken it step by step, by day, you just got to put on your big girl panties or put on your big girl shorts, I guess you could say, and just continue going about your day, you gotta wake up, do your job, take care of your family, take care of your life.

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How Does One’s Culture Impact AML Care?

How Does One’s Culture Impact AML Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML patient and Empowerment Lead, Sasha Tanori, shares how her culture impacted her care and how her diagnosis opened her family’s eyes to start taking care of themselves.

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Advocacy Tips From an AML Patient


Sasha Tanori:

My culture made a big significance in my care, because it was something that my family, especially my dad with the Mexican side, it wasn’t something that you did. You didn’t go out and seek care if you are hurt, you just sucked it up, you went to work, you went to school, you did your job, you took care of your family, and that was it. If you had any type of ailments or illness, you would just rub some Vaseline and do the sana sana and just move on about your day. So when I started getting the bruises and the tiredness and the fatigue, my dad was just like, “She’s just clumsy, she’s just making it up, or she’s being dramatic,” and it was never a big deal to anybody, especially with him. You know my mom, she’s a little bit more on my side with everything, so she was like, “Oh yeah, you know, maybe you should go to the hospital. Maybe you should go check this out, maybe you should go do that.”

But finally, it was my cousin who convinced me about like a month after all, I was going through all of that to go to the hospital, and still my dad was just like, “Man, she’s going to go to the hospital and be there for 12 hours, and nothing’s going to be wrong.” He was so sure that everything was fine, so finally, when I had went, and I found out I had cancer, I think it really opened my dad’s eyes to realize, “Wow, maybe she wasn’t lying.”

Maybe she wasn’t making it up. But yeah, I think it was a really big step on my part being Mexican American, to finally take that step to take care of myself, especially physically and mentally, you know? God forbid, you have depression or anxiety in a Mexican household, they’re just like, “No, no, no, there’s no…what do you mean you don’t feel good? Just walk outside, drink some coffee, you’ll be fine. Get over it.” So yeah, I think it really opened my dad’s eyes, especially seeing me so sick for him to kind of realize, “Wow, you know, this stuff is kind of serious.” Because now he goes to the doctor, he takes his medication, he takes care of himself more.

But yeah, having that type of cultural background in your household, it’s really hard to express how you’re feeling when it comes to your mental and physical health. It’s hard to walk up to your dad and be like, “Hey, Dad, I’m not feeling good, can you take me to the doctor? Or can we talk about this?” And she’s like, “No, no, no. We don’t talk about stuff. No, we don’t go to the doctor, we don’t do any of that stuff, we have to stay strong and work and take care of the family.” We’re not allowed to be sick, we’re not allowed to take care of ourselves pretty much, I think…

Thankfully, me taking care of myself has kind of helped him as well to take care of himself.

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Care Partner Profile: Mike Crocker

The first time Mike Crocker became a care partner was in 2016 when his wife Dr. Gerri Smoluk was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). The second time was in 2020 when, after being in remission for four years, Gerri was diagnosed with leukemia again. The two experiences couldn’t have been more different, says Mike.

Gerri’s first diagnosis came shortly after she started a new job. Gerri, who had a PhD in biochemistry, worked in the pharmaceutical industry. She was feeling tired a lot, but she was brushing it off, blaming it on the stress that comes with a new job. However, Mike urged her to see a doctor, so Gerri had a coworker, who was also a doctor, check her out. The coworker sent Gerri directly to the emergency room. She was admitted and was in the hospital for 45 days undergoing chemotherapy. “She had a very severe case,” says Mike.

It was overwhelming to say the least, but Mike quickly took on the role of caregiver. He soon realized that the simple things were the most helpful. Mike made sure to bring Gerri some of the comforts of home. He made sure she had t-shirts and sweatshirts to wear instead of hospital gowns. He brought Gerri her laptop and yarn for crocheting. He brought her the few foods that she could actually taste after the chemo wiped out her taste buds. Mike was also her sounding board. He listened as she talked through her care options and how they would affect her quality of life. He was simply there for her, walking with her daily so she could get some exercise and maintain circulation, so she didn’t have to stay in bed with the compression sleeves on her legs. “I did all the little things that could help her be a little more in control and have as close to a normal day as possible,” says Mike adding that Gerri’s background in biochemistry and the pharmaceutical industry gave her unique insight into her care. “She started charting her tests and data so she could be a part of the solution and have informed discussions with doctors. She wanted details and wanted to know what to expect.”

Mike and Gerri learned that patients and care partners are given overwhelming amounts of information and that they have the responsibility of learning all they can and asking questions and making decisions. He says that doctors aren’t always keeping up with the latest research and that it is easy for them to get stuck in routine treatments. He found that doctors talk about options based on their experience and their skill set, but that doesn’t mean that approach is best for the patient. He says that being comfortable with the doctor and getting a second opinion if wanted are also important. He and Gerri learned to be active participants in her treatment and care.

In addition, Mike and Gerri were always looking ahead and focusing on the future. He concentrated on keeping her spirits up. When she was bald from chemo Gerri was looking at wigs and Mike says he encouraged her to go wild and get a bright red wig. “She didn’t go for it but being outrageous and adding humor to the moment was a way for me to help,” he says.

It was while she was in her fourth year of remission that Gerri found Patient Empowerment Network (PEN). “Gerri liked PEN’s focus on making the information understandable for patients, giving them easy-to-digest information to make decisions,” says Mike. Gerri jumped right in and helped to develop the Network Manager program which launched in March 2020. The program is made up of volunteers around the country who use their own patient experience to support patients and their care partners through their own cancer journey and on to a path to empowerment. “PEN is very important because it is patient-focused,” Mike says, and that’s why PEN appealed to Gerri. She liked that she could use her scientific background to help patients understand the information and to make sensible decisions for themselves. Gerri served as the AML Network Manager and was named a finalist for the 2020 Reuters Patient Champion Award in the Patient Advocate category.

Then in July 2020, Gerri got her second diagnosis. She celebrated her birthday July 7 and a week later, Gerri was back in the hospital. “This time she had a second type of leukemia which threw doctors for a loop,” says Mike. “Usually when leukemia patients relapse, it’s with the same type of leukemia.”

Although they had been through a leukemia diagnosis before, this experience was nothing like the first. “It was very different. It was during covid so of course, unlike before, when she could have friends drop in, she no longer could have visitors. Everything was more restrictive with covid,” says Mike. “At least I could be there every day.”

This time, Gerri and Mike were not expecting a longer hospital stay. They were expecting outpatient treatment that would be easier, and they were looking forward to time away from the hospital. The first time was so scary, but this time they were experienced, and they knew what to expect, but what they expected is not what happened.

After about a week Gerri got worse. Doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong, but they were unable to save her. Gerri died July 27, 2020. The autopsy revealed she had an antibiotic resistant bacterial infection.

More than a year later, Mike says he’s doing okay. “Everyone handles it differently,” he says. “You have to give yourself permission to not be happy and also give yourself permission to keep going and find other things to fill the hole.” In September 2021, he retired from his career as a web project manager, and recently he reached out to PEN looking for a way to use his skills to help others. “Gerri was the driver, so now I’ve been drifting,” he says. “That’s why I contacted PEN. I wanted to do something of value.”

Mike will be an invaluable addition to the PEN network of volunteers.

On Recovering After a Stem Cell Transplant

As a transplant survivor and peer volunteer, I have met with over 150 transplant patients. The most common question I hear concerns what recovery looks like. People want to know about timelines, precautions, complications, medications, benchmarks, and much more.

I can only answer these questions from my experience, and no two outcomes are the same. But I’ve read and heard enough other stories to know where mine is typical or exceptional, so I can also place my story in a broader context.

In June of 2016, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. I underwent induction chemotherapy and achieved a temporary remission. In October of 2016, I received a double cord blood stem cell transplant. I fully recovered and have returned to all my prior activities, so mine is a very positive story. Along the way, however, there were several memorable challenges.

Prelude to a transplant

My initial treatment required a five-and-a-half-week hospital stay. It was one week for the traditional “7+3” chemotherapy regimen, and another four and a half weeks to monitor and treat the inevitable infections that followed in the wake of chemotherapy-induced immunosuppression.

My diagnosis was routine for my providers but shocking for me. I was asymptomatic and feeling perfectly healthy at my annual physical. But low white blood cell counts triggered a bone marrow biopsy that established my diagnosis. I was hospitalized the next day and started chemotherapy the day after that. My treatment was underway before I even understood my disease and its bleak prognosis.

When they told me to expect a 5-6-week hospital stay, I was dumbfounded. I quickly realized that I needed ways to cope with how my world had suddenly become very small and quite precarious. Over the ensuing weeks, I developed and honed several crucial strategies.

First, I relied upon mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. It helped me banish thoughts about the past and anxieties about the future, and to non-judgmentally accept and live in each moment as it unfolded.

Second, I did as much physical exercise as my circumstances would allow. My routines included stretching, isometric exercises, extensive hall walking, squats, lunges and pushups. I did it mindfully, and these routines structured my days, increased my energy, and lifted my spirits.

Third, I was a pro-active patient. I cultivated good communication with my doctors and nurses. I asked lots of questions about my treatment and became a collaborator in decisions about medications, dosing, and deciphering and treating the many infections and side effects that came my way.

Fourth, I maintained my robust sense of humor. Sharing jokes and witty banter with my medical providers broke the ice, resolved the tension, and humanized our consults. It also gave friends and family a way to relate to me as the person I’d always been rather than the patient I’d recently become.

Fifth, I relied on a supportive belief system. For some, that’s religion. For me, it was a secular worldview based on my social science background. It encouraged me to learn about my condition and fostered a practical, problem-solving orientation to all the challenges it posed.

Finally, I wrote my story from the very first week. I sent detailed reports about my status and reflections as a cancer patient to a large group of email correspondents. Writing for others forced me to understand my journey so I could articulate it for them. This writing became a psychic survival mechanism (and a subsequent memoir).

When the time for transplant arrived, I packed a bag, grabbed my laptop, and took these coping strategies with me. As doctors cured my body, these strategies sustained me throughout everything that was to come.

The Transplant and Hospitalization

Like many patients, I was admitted to my transplant hospital one week before the actual procedure (day -7). I underwent conditioning chemotherapy and full body radiation. Upon my transplant (day 0), I was told to expect another three to five weeks in the hospital before I could be safely discharged.

Days 1-7 were uneventful except for some moderate nausea due my prior chemotherapy and radiation. I got some relief from a drug called marinol that allowed me to eat regular meals during this time. As my counts hit bottom, I was closely monitored for fevers and infections. Even so, I felt good enough to do daily exercise, walk on a treadmill, do yoga, and be as active as possible while confined to my room.

On day 8, my doctors said I was doing so well they were thinking of discharging me in a couple more days – much earlier than expected. But then I developed an infection and a recurring fever that spiked every twelve hours for several days and delayed my discharge.

By day 19, my infection and fevers had resolved, and I went home under the watchful eye of my caregivers. I thus left the hospital in just under three weeks since transplant – much quicker than the 3-5-week hospitalization I had been told to expect.

A Memorable Month at Home

From day 20 to 50, the plan was for daily clinic visits to monitor counts, treat symptoms, and assess progress. On day 21, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that one of my donors was 99% engrafted, which was an unusually early and complete success for a cord blood transplant. With engraftment underway, we then watched for signs of graft-vs.-host disease.

During this month (day 20-50), my caregivers were essential. They drove me to daily clinic visits for blood draws, provider consultations and needed treatments. From day 20-26, I received daily transfusions of platelets and several transfusions of red blood cells. Several more transfusions as well as injections of growth factor medications to spur new white blood cells followed throughout this month. After the second week, however, they reduced my clinic visits to fewer and fewer days each succeeding week.

That first month at home (day 20-50) was also when I felt the side-effects from my treatment most keenly. The lingering impacts of chemotherapy and radiation, the engraftment process, and multiple medications produced several memorable symptoms. There were aches and pains from the engraftment itself that I treated with ibuprofen, and ongoing bouts of nausea that I managed with marinol. I was also taking about 20 scheduled pills a day, including prophylactic antibiotics, anti-viral and anti-fungal medications, anti-rejection medications, and several pills to manage side effects of these medications.

My most memorable symptom during this period was a staggering level of fatigue as my body underwent this transformation. I was sleeping eight to nine hours a night but still required lengthy naps in the late morning and late afternoon. I couldn’t stay awake for more than four hours at a time and was totally exhausted by nightfall.

On day 39, routine blood work detected a cytomegalovirus infection. It’s one of many critters that can reside in our gut our whole lives unbeknownst to us. But with immunosuppression, the virus can become active and pose serious danger. It is usually well controlled if detected early and treated quickly, so I was immediately put on a more powerful antiviral drug to address the infection.

The virus drastically reduced my white blood cell count while the antiviral medication added further immunosuppressive effects. For a few days, I had additional fatigue, aches, chills, and nausea. When the virus and anti-viral forces fought to a standstill, they contemplated admitting me back into the hospital for several days of IV, antiviral treatments. Instead of re-hospitalization, however, the compromise treatment was an outpatient infusion of IV immunoglobulin to boost my white blood cell count while the antiviral medication gradually tamed the virus. With that, I continued my recovery at home.

Through the First 100 Days

From day 50 to day 100, I experienced gradual if uneven improvement. Clinic visits tapered to once a week or less. Bone aches ceased and nausea all but disappeared. Fatigue also decreased, and when I did feel tired, I could usually trace it to increased activity levels compared to my first 30 days at home. As I was able to reduce doses or eliminate some medications, my mind cleared and my energy increased. While I experienced minor rashes, dry eyes, and sinus headaches, there was nothing that required major medical treatment or raised suspicions of graft-vs.-host disease.

By day 58, I began experiencing neuropathy in my feet. This is a common side-effect of chemotherapy, but in my case, it has been blessedly mild. It mainly presents as numbness and tingling under the balls of both feet. I was told it might resolve within a year, but it remains the only side effect that has persisted and which I now regard as permanent. It has not responded to acupuncture or cortisone injections. My best adaptation has been specially designed shoes and custom insoles that take pressure off the sensitive areas and make the condition quite tolerable.

By day 60, I was having trouble lining up caregivers but still needed to get to weekly clinic visits. I had been prohibited from driving or being without a caregiver for the first 100 days, but that was no longer practical. I carefully began driving myself to clinic visits. By then, I knew how my medications affected me and so I delayed my antifungal medication and the blurry vision it caused until I safely returned from my outings.

On day 78, my oncologist recommended removing the “Power Hickman” central line that had served me well for almost seven months. It had been with me since the beginning of my treatment and had facilitated painless blood draws and countless infusions of blood, platelets, IV medications, and chemotherapy. But with the reduction in all these procedures, the risk of an infected line was becoming greater than the benefits of keeping it in place. An added benefit was being able to take a shower without wrapping my entire upper torso in Saran Wrap to protect the gizmo.

Day 100 was a significant benchmark for several reasons. I had another bone marrow biopsy that confirmed full engraftment and no residual leukemia. Reviewing my biopsy results, blood tests, and overall progress, my oncologist said my recovery to date was “as good as it gets.”

At this time, I was able to eliminate or reduce many of my medications. More importantly, I began to gradually taper my anti-rejection medication (cyclosporine) over the next three-month period. The gradual pace of this taper was meant to allow my old body and my new immune system to learn to get along with each other, restore full immunity, and avoid GVHD

By this time, I was feeling much better and was eager to return to my regular activities. Since my blood counts were all good, I asked my oncologist her advice. She provided a rather technical explanation of why I was still at considerable risk and needed to avoid crowds, continue wearing my mask in public, and follow other precautions.

My layman’s interpretation of her explanation was that even though I had sufficient white blood cells and neutrophils, my anti-rejection medication would still prevent them from fully activating in case of infection. So despite feeling better and having good counts, I needed to maintain precautions until my anti-rejection medication had run its course and my immune system was more functional and able to protect me in a germ-filled world.

Completing the Marathon

From day 100 to day 180, I continued gradual improvement and weathered some minor bumps in the road. My clinic visits were now spaced out every couple weeks, and I began to see other practitioners to assess some peripheral issues arising from my diagnosis and treatment.

Since my leukemia put me at risk for skin cancer, I saw a dermatologist who detected a small, basal cell carcinoma that was easily excised. I continue to see her every six months for full body skin checks with no further issues. My leukemia had also caused some retinal hemorrhaging that was diagnosed before transplant. A follow up visit during this period showed that all retinal issues had completely resolved with the eradication of my leukemia.

Even though I was now tapering my anti-rejection medication, its cumulative impact produced numerous unpleasant side effects. While I avoided the most serious ones, I nonetheless experienced flushing, hypertension, nausea, altered kidney function, neuropathy, weight loss, leg cramps, sinus irritation, abdominal swelling, and night sweats. I began a temporary regimen of blood pressure medication and rode out the other issues. To top it off, I also had a flare up of the cytomegalovirus, which once again was quickly detected and effectively treated with specialized antiviral medication.

On day 180, I had my 6-month biopsy which reconfirmed full engraftment and no residual leukemia. At this time, I stopped my anti-rejection medication and its unwanted side effects began to dissipate. I was also able to stop virtually all of my remaining pills with the exception of an antiviral medication which continued until day 365. With adequate immunity restored, I was cleared to do any activity I wanted with one exception: I had to avoid fungal sources of infection (yard work, turning over soil, fresh mushrooms, etc.) for the next six months because such infections are easy to contract and difficult to eradicate.

For me, this was a major psychological turning point. I accepted that I was actually better, resumed my “normal” life, and let go of lingering anxieties about my status. When my transplant oncologist said she didn’t need to see me for another six months, it was initially unnerving after such intensive monitoring. At the same time, it reinforced my sense that I had reached a major milestone in my recovery.

“As Good As It Gets” (and Some Cheap Advice)

After day 180, my care shifted back to my initial oncologist at my induction hospital. Monthly blood draws and bimonthly consultations gradually became less frequent. Four years out from my initial diagnosis, I now have blood draws four times a year and see this oncologist twice a year.

At year one and two (days 365 and 730), I returned to my transplant oncologist for my final two biopsies which found no residual disease.  At year one, they re-did my childhood vaccinations from dead viral sources; at year two, I received my remaining vaccinations from live viral sources.

There’s good reason to say my story is “as good as it gets.” First, I got into remission on the first round of induction chemotherapy. This does not happen for a significant minority of AML patients who require multiple rounds of chemotherapy or other treatments to attain remission.

Second, I had full donor engraftment in three weeks. Most patients achieve engraftment, but it typically takes longer or doesn’t happen as completely as it did in my case. In the worst-case scenario, a small percentage of patients never experience engraftment and face a very poor prognosis.

Third, I have had no graft-vs.-host disease. I had been told there was a 60-70% chance of acute (within the first 100 days) GVHD in cases like mine, but I had no symptoms that could be attributed to this cause. That reduced my chances of chronic (after the first 100 days) GVHD to 20%. Although it can appear years after transplant, I’ve had no symptoms as of this writing.

What is typical about my story are the various infections, unpleasant side-effects, and minor complications documented here. They are simply part and parcel of the disease, treatment, and transplant; few if any patients escape them altogether. But in my case, they were quite manageable with the excellent support I received from my medical practitioners and caregiver team. Thanks to them, I left my transplant hospital on day 19 and never returned.

Advice is cheap, so here’s my two cent’s worth. Even in the best-case scenario, recovery is so gradual that it’s hard to realize when you are actually making progress (especially when there are periodic setbacks). I learned to pay attention to even small steps of improvement and took heart when they occurred.

Here’s one example. Around day 40, I ran up a flight of stairs at home and became short of breath. I initially found this discouraging, but then I realized I hadn’t even run up a flight of stairs since my diagnosis, and that this was progress not regress. Recovery happens through small, incremental changes that eventually culminate in qualitative improvement. It helps to be aware of these small steps as they occur; you may even want to record them in a weekly journal to fully appreciate them.

Finally, some clichés bear repeating. Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Moreover, it’s a marathon on an obstacle course of potential complications. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from your doctors or accept assistance from your caregivers. It’s not a burden; it actually makes them feel better when they can help you out. Finally, cultivate patience, resilience, and fortitude as you go the distance. It will serve you well.

Facing Acute Myeloid Leukemia: Notes from a Survivor

In the spring of 2016, I was looking forward to a final year of teaching sociology before a retirement promising new adventures.  I felt great and had no reason to think I had any health problems.  When my doctor suggested some routine blood work, I readily complied.  When the results showed abnormally low white blood cell counts and he recommended a hematologist, I readily complied. When the hematologist ordered a bone marrow biopsy, I still readily complied.  When the results came in, my life changed forever.

The biopsy revealed that I had acute myeloid leukemia. Since this disease can kill within months, they recommended immediate treatment. The next day I checked into a hospital and started chemotherapy.  I received the standard treatment for this disease for the preceding 40 years: a “7 + 3” cocktail of cytarabine and idarubicin.  I spent five and a half weeks in the hospital dealing with various infections brought on by immunosuppression and patiently waiting for my blood counts to recover. As they did, I received the best possible news. The chemotherapy had achieved a temporary remission that bought me time to explore my options for longer term treatment.

As I awaited the molecular and cytogenic data on my cancer, I was told to expect two possibilities.  If there was a relatively low risk of relapse, I might get by with additional chemotherapy. If there was a high risk of relapse, a stem cell transplant was in order. When the results placed me in an intermediate risk category, I had a tough choice to make. After researching my options, getting second opinions, gathering advice, and reading my doctor’s cues, I settled on the transplant.  My logic was that if I opted for more chemo and it didn’t work out, I would deeply regret not having the transplant.  If I had the transplant and it didn’t work out, at least I would feel as if I gave it my best shot and it just wasn’t meant to be. Despite the 15-20% mortality rate from the transplant itself, I was at peace with my decision to proceed.

My benefactors were two anonymous sets of parents who had donated their newborn infants’ umbilical cords to a transplant bank.  Once we found two good matches, the cords were shipped to my transplant hospital, the cord blood was extracted, and it was transfused into my bloodstream. These stem cells just “knew” where to go to engraft in my bone marrow and begin producing a healthy new immune system.  For the second time, I received the best possible news. Three weeks after transplant, one of my donor’s cells were 99% engrafted. With that result, I returned home for a prolonged recovery.

For the next few weeks, I faced daily clinic visits, blood tests, transfusions of platelets and red blood cells, growth factor injections, and lingering effects of my conditioning chemotherapy and radiation as well as the engraftment process itself. As the weeks turned into months, my recovery proceeded apace.  It eventually became clear that I could claim the best possible news for the third time, as my new cells and old body got along with each other and there was no evidence of graft-vs.-host disease.  Looking back over the entire process, my oncologist summarized it by saying “this is as good as it gets.”

Many people wanted to give me credit for surviving this disease. While it is tempting to claim such credit, I remain agnostic about whether anything I did had a material effect on my positive outcome. I think my survival was largely a matter of luck, chance, and random variation across AML patients. Nonetheless, there were several practices I engaged in throughout my treatment that deserve mention. At the very least, they brought me peace during a difficult time. And at the most, they may indeed have contributed to a positive outcome for which I am eternally grateful.

The first set of practices that sustained me was mindfulness, meditation and yoga.  To the greatest extent possible, these practices helped me let go of ruminations about the past or fears about the future and focus on the present moment.  Focusing on my breathing kept me centered as – like my breaths – each moment flowed into the next.  Maintaining a non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of each passing moment kept my psyche on an even keel.

Rather than extended periods of formal meditation, I simply sought a mindful awareness of each moment, hour, day and week.  I also went through a daily yoga routine even while receiving chemotherapy. Doing so helped me retain my identity as I weathered the toxic treatment and its inevitable side-effects.  In the evenings, I used a technique called a body scan to relax and prepare me for a peaceful sleep. The cumulative effect of these practices was a calm acceptance of circumstances I could not change alongside a serene hope that all would work out for the best.

A second practice involved being a proactive patient.  Perhaps it was my training as a social scientist that allowed me to bring an analytical curiosity to my disease and the treatments my doctors were deploying. I asked lots of questions during their all too brief visits, and they patiently responded to all my queries.

On several occasions, my proactive stance made a positive contribution to my treatment.  When I developed a nasty, full body rash, it took a collaborative conversation between me, my oncologist, and infectious disease doctors to isolate the one drug among so many that was the culprit. I identified it, they switched it out, and the rash abated. On another occasion, I was able to identify two drugs that were causing an unpleasant interaction effect.  I suggested changing the dosing schedule, they concurred, and the problem resolved.  The sense of efficacy I received from this proactive stance also helped me retain a positive mood and hopeful stance during my prolonged treatment.

A third practice involved maintaining a regimen of physical activity.  During my first, five-week hospital stay, I felt compelled to move and get out of my room for both physical and social reasons.  I developed a routine of walking the halls three times a day, trailing my IV pole behind me.  They tell me I was walking roughly 5 miles a day, and every excursion felt like it was keeping my disease at bay and connecting me with all the nurses and staff members I would encounter as I made my rounds.

When I moved to my transplant hospital, I was confined to my room but requested a treadmill that met the physical need for activity even as I sacrificed the social benefits of roaming the halls.  But throughout both hospital stays and later at home, I maintained stretching activities, exercise workouts, physical therapy routines, and yoga to keep my body as active and engaged as my circumstances would allow. These activities also gave me a welcome sense of efficacy and control.

A fourth practice involved maintaining my sense of humor.  I have always appreciated a wide variety of humor, ranging from bad jokes, puns and double entendre to witty anecdotes and stories to philosophical musings.  Cancer is anything buy funny, which is precisely why humor has the power to break through the somber mood and fatalistic worldview that so often accompanies the disease.  Using humor became another way of keeping the cancer at bay.  It was a way of saying you may make me sick and eventually kill me, but I’m still going to enjoy a good laugh and a bad joke along the way.

Alongside these practices I could control, there were also beneficial circumstances beyond my control that worked in my favor.  These included the privilege of being a well-educated white male that led to my being treated respectfully and taken seriously by all my health care providers.  In addition, my doctors and nurses consistently combined skill and expertise with compassion and empathy in ways I will never forget or could ever repay. And finally, my privileged status and excellent care played out against a backdrop of strong social support from a dense network of family, friends, colleagues and neighbors.

A final practice that integrated everything else was writing my story as it unfolded. Upon my first hospitalization, I began sending emails to an ever-expanding group of recipients documenting and reflecting upon my disease, treatment and recovery.  Narrating my story for others required me to make sense of it for myself.  The ostensible goal of keeping others informed became a powerful therapeutic prod for my own understanding of what was going on around me and to me.  While my doctors’ ministrations cured my body, my writing preserved my sense of self and a coherent identity.

I eventually sent over 60 lengthy reports to a group of roughly 50 recipients over a 16-month period.  This writing would eventually serve three purposes.  It was a sense-making procedure for me. It was a communication vehicle with my correspondents. And finally, I realized it could be a resource for others in the broader cancer community. With that insight, I did some additional writing about lessons learned and identity transformations and published the resulting account.

As I mentioned at the start, I will never know if any of these practices or circumstances made a material contribution to my survival.  But they maintained my sanity and preserved my identity during the most challenging experience of my life. Regardless of the eventual endings of our journeys, sustaining and nurturing ourselves along the way is a worthy goal in itself.