By Todd Ellison, MSW, LICSW
I often tell people that the experiences I’ve had, however challenging, were necessary to make me who I am today. I am pretty happy with the person I turned out to be, and I think cancer had a lot to do with that.
Back in 1997, I was living in Rhode Island and working as a gaming supervisor at a casino. It was a dark, smoke-filled environment, and one evening I felt awful and went to the emergency room. They did some blood work and I was diagnosed with leukemia. I had heard of it, but didn’t know it was a blood cancer. I just knew it was bad.
More specifically, I had chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML, in which your bone marrow overproduces unhealthy white blood cells that kill healthy cells. It usually occurs in older people; I was just 25. They tried to get my white blood cell count down to a safe level, but when they couldn’t, they told me I needed a stem cell transplant. My doctor recommended I go up the road Boston to Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.
It was an excellent decision. Under the guidance of Joseph Antin, MD, Dana-Farber put tremendous effort into finding me a donor match for an allogeneic (or unrelated) transplant (nobody in my family was a match for me as a stem cell donor). They found two matches in the international registry. After that things moved very fast; Dr. Antin admitted me and prepped me for the procedure. I had full body irradiation to kill the unhealthy white blood cells, and after that I didn’t eat solid foods or leave the hospital for five weeks.
People ask me what a stem cell transplant is like, and I say it’s like almost dying and being brought back to life with the help of a stranger. I remember the first time I realized that my blood type had changed into the type of my donor. It was like I had really become him!
Once I got back home, and after a long recovery, I returned to my casino job. I was on my feet all day, and developed pain in my right foot that doctors in Rhode Island initially diagnosed as gout. The medicine they prescribed didn’t improve it, and when I got a bone scan they noticed something on my kidney they believed might be renal cell carcinoma – kidney cancer. I had half my right kidney removed and biopsied, confirming the cancer.
The doctors told me I was lucky; usually kidney cancer is diagnosed at a later stage, when it can be more deadly. It’s just because of my totally unrelated sore foot that they found it, but they said it could be related to my CML treatment. As a cancer survivor, I was already aware that I have a slightly higher risk of developing secondary cancers.
I liked my casino job and was on track for a management position, but going through these experiences changed my outlook. I wanted to help other people facing similar challenges, so I went back to school, got a Masters in Social Work, and now work in advocacy, policy, and legislation for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. In addition, I have a private psychotherapy practice specializing in assisting people in coping and managing their own cancer diagnosis or illness after stem cell transplants, and I volunteer for “Be The Match” – which partners with the National Marrow Donor Program linking up donors and recipients. I’ve flown all over the world delivering marrow.
For several years I came to Boston for regular checkups with Dr. Antin and my wonderful nurse, Toni Dubeau, NP. Over the years, as my health improved, we lost touch. Recently, a woman I know joined a clinical trial at Dana-Farber. She had the same care team I did, Toni and Dr. Antin, so I decided to drive her to one of her visits.
Seeing my caregivers again was wonderful, but it’s hard to find what to say. It was the same feeling I had when I met my donor, Mark Patter, for the first time. How do you adequately thank the people who helped save your life?