It’s not often you get to thank someone for saving your life.
Anyone who knows me probably knows that I’ve had a ton of near-death experiences.
In fact, I did an entire comedy show about it.
Anyone who knows me really well will also know that one of them was coping with cancer.
It’s been so long I hardly ever even think about Leukaemia anymore. Even my oldest friends forget I had it, and new friends are always surprised to find out.
But I had a little reminder last week from, of all places, Linkedin.
When I was first diagnosed I was determined to hire the best doctor in America to help me win the fight. I went all across the country meeting with various oncologists and visiting bone marrow transplant hospitals.
I met multiple smart, caring, and clever people and they all told me the same thing:
That I was young, in good physical shape (aside from the, you know, cancer) and that if I could find a decent match a Bone Marrow Transplant was the best option for me.
I was lucky and found a donor, and survival rates at the time were considered “good” at 25-65%.
But something in my gut told me a BMT was not for me. I kept checking out more doctors and kept getting the same answer.
Then a friend got me an introduction to Nelson Chao at Duke University. As a UNC-Chapel Hill grad, going over to Duke for any reason other than to watch the Tarheels trounce the Devils was against the rules.
My life depended on it, so I made an exception and headed over into enemy territory.
Nelson was the only doctor to suggest that I hold off on a transplant. He used the following cryptic words, “some very interesting things are coming.”
I tried to get him to explain more, and he refused, saying it was too early for him to share anything solid.
But the sleuth in me immediately went to work. I started researching, looking for whatever it was that he might have been alluding to.
My sleuthing led me to the American Society of Hematology (ASH) Conference abstracts. And it was there in tiny print that I first saw the term “STI-571,” a new type of drug being trialled specifically for Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia.
Eureka! This had to be what Nelson was talking about, and to make a long story short, it was.
STI-571 came to market as Gleevec and I was one of the first people in the world to take it. And I was one of the first in the world to get a 100% remission without any molecularly detectable disease. And I was also one of the first people in the world to stop taking it and stay in remission.
My case was so successful I became the literal poster child for the drug.
And thirteen years later I finally heard the “C-word” from my hematologist: Cure.
But I didn’t hear it from Nelson Chao. He wasn’t my doctor. Sadly my health insurance seemed to lean more Tarheel than Devils. Duke was out of network.
So it wasn’t until Linkedin recently decided to let me know that Nelson Chao was having a work anniversary that he and this story came to mind for the first time in a long time.
I expressed my gratitude right there in the comments.
Congrats Nelson – you may not remember me, but you arguably saved my life many years ago.
You were the only doctor at the time to tell me to hold off on a BMT knowing that STI-571 was coming.
What you may not know is I was one of the first people in the world to take Gleevec – and then stop.
I haven’t taken it in thirteen years and during my most recent hematologist visit, they finally used the “C” word: Cure.
I am never not grateful to you for putting me on that path.
Thank you (from a Tar Heel no less!)
I’m one of the lucky ones.
But sadly a cancer diagnosis is a very common occurrence despite the great work of Dr Nelson Chao, Brian Druker, and the many other heroes like them.
One out of three women and two out of three men will likely get a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime.
If you happen to know someone who was recently told this sort of bad news, then send them a link to this article.
It just might help save their life.
And in the meantime, I’m grateful to Nelson Chao for helping save mine.
It’s good to still be here learning, loving… and living.