Alan Dynner was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in 2016 at 76 years old. Treatment for the cancer would require a life-saving stem cell transplant, a procedure that most hospitals deemed too grueling for someone Dynner’s age.
But thanks in large part to treatment options a short drive from his Boston home at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC), Dynner qualified for a reduced-intensity transplant—and now, with effectively a new immune system, the former attorney and business executive is back to his regular routine of exercise, travel, charity work, and visits to museums and concerts with his wife, Lisa.
“Before my doctors told me I was a candidate for a stem cell transplant, I thought my life was about to end and put my affairs in order,” Dynner says. “Suddenly Lisa and I were excited and energized, full of hope because a transplant would give me the chance to live.”
Dynner’s diagnosis wasn’t something he was expecting. It came after his primary care physician noted abnormal blood counts during a routine physical exam which established Dynner had low red and white blood counts, as well as a low platelet count. At that point Dynner came to Dana-Farber, where a bone marrow biopsy confirmed the cause as AML.
He had long planned on writing his memoir for his grandchildren after he retired, but these plans were postponed by his travel and other activities. Now, suddenly, he had to begin chemotherapy under the care of David Steensma, MD, in preparation for a reduced-intensity transplant, geared toward older patients and those with certain medical conditions and infections.
He underwent the procedure in April 2017, under the care of oncologist Robert Soiffer, MD, and physician assistant Amy Joyce, MSN, NP. After, during a long period at home required to avoid infection and allow the transplant to take hold, Dynner completed writing and illustrating his memoir.
Reduced-intensity transplants, which use lower doses of chemotherapy than standard transplants, are making stem cell transplants possible for a growing number of older patients. At DF/BWCC, 1,650 patients aged 55 and older had transplants from 2013 to 2017, a number that has been growing steadily in recent years.
“Increasingly, our transplant colleagues have been able to guide older patients through the rigors of transplant successfully,” says Steensma. “When I was in training in the 1990s, no one older than 60 years was considered a good transplant candidate. But now it is routine at DF/BWCC to transplant otherwise healthy patients who are 70, and the upper bound continues to increase.”
Lisa Dynner credits her husband’s strong response to his upbeat and realistic attitude throughout his chemotherapy, transplant, and recovery. Being in great physical shape—Dynner was playing tennis, biking, and working out three times a week before his AML diagnosis—also played an important part.
Most of all, says Lisa, it was the caring, calming way that Soiffer, Steensma, Joyce, and the rest of their care team walked the Dynners through the process beforehand that helped them ready for it logistically and emotionally.
“One of the social workers at Dana-Farber gave us wonderful advice on how to explain his diagnosis and upcoming transplant to our grandchildren, factually and sensitively,” explains Lisa Dynner. “It wasn’t easy, but it helped prepare the family for the journey ahead.”
A year after his treatment began, when his family gathered for Thanksgiving, Alan was already well into his recovery period – making for a happy holiday. There have been hurdles for him along the way, including gout and graft-versus-host disease, a condition that impacts many transplant recipients. Still, Soiffer says Alan’s optimism for the future is well-founded.
The Dynners are enjoying and appreciative of every healthy day, and are taking steps so that other families can experience the same good fortune. To that end, they have made a generous philanthropic gift to Dana-Farber to fund efforts by Soiffer and his team to advance transplant strategies for patients with AML and other hematologic disorders.
“The support Alan and Lisa are providing will help us discover new ways to reduce relapse rates after transplantation and reduce long-term complications,” says Soiffer, co-chief of Stem Cell Transplantation and chief of the Division of Hematologic Malignancies at Dana-Farber.
Alan, meanwhile, remains positive and hopeful.
“I know there is a chance for a relapse or other complications, but I’m not thinking about that,” he says. “I have resumed most of my normal activities and am feeling as well now as I did before I got sick, thanks to Dana-Farber and Lisa’s support.”