Leukemia Survivor Finishes College and Treatment at the Same Time

When Minnesota native Charles “Woody” Hubbell went to college, he thought his biggest hurdle would be the culture shock of attending an east coast school that he had never visited in person. But his freshman year, he fell completely in love with the Boston College community and his friends as he pursued a major in finance and entrepreneurship.

However, things got more complicated in November of his sophomore year, when he started experiencing unusual symptoms. It was the beginning of a journey that would lead him to Dana-Farber.

Woody in his graduation gown.

The beginning

“I was just at the gym playing basketball with some of my friends,” Woody recalls. “I was feeling a little more fatigued than normal and thought I was just getting out of shape.”

It seemed like a reasonable assumption to make, so Woody went home to his family for Thanksgiving break, thinking he needed to adjust his workout routine.

When he returned to school, however, he started feeling increasingly worse. He went to Boston College health services, where he underwent some blood tests.

Soon after, while Woody was studying for first-semester finals in the library. His roommate found him and said that a member of health services was looking for Woody. He needed to report to them immediately.

“’It’s thirty minutes before my first final. This better be quick, I need to get some last-minute studying in,’” Woody remembers thinking.

His hopes of a quick meeting were shattered when the doctors told him that his blood cell count matched that of person with leukemia.

“About thirty minutes in, I had accepted this as? something I am going to have to deal with. I can’t really change anything,” Woody says. “But then I had to tell all the people that I care about: friends, family, classmates, professors, and that’s really not something that happens very often, especially for a nineteen-year-old.”

The road ahead

To confirm his diagnosis, Woody immediately went to Brigham and Women’s Hospital to undergo more testing. That night, he met his primary oncologist for his entire journey. Marlise R. Luskin, MD, MSCE, of the Adult Leukemia Program at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. She confirmed that he had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Thus began Woody’s long process to recovery — a journey that brought, along with the difficulties, many moments that reassured his belief in the overwhelming goodness of others.

For the first month, Woody was an inpatient at Brigham and Women’s, and received chemotherapy while nurses checked on him multiple times a day. Doctors ran constant tests to ensure all of his organs were working properly, due to how low his blood cell count was at the time. The initial “induction” treatment was successful; Woody entered remission and was able to leave the hospital.

He then began consolidation treatment — treatment that is designed to kill any remaining cancer cells in the body — as an outpatient. In the first few months of consolidation, he joined a clinical trial at Dana-Farber that aimed to test a new drug called inotuzumab for certain ALL patients. (This treatment would later become FDA approved.)

“Being Woody’s physician was a just a joy; he and his family embraced me and my team immediately, and getting Woody through his chemotherapy treatment successfully while making sure we kept his dreams on track became our shared mission,” Luskin says. “Woody’s smile and positive attitude inspired us all, and there is no doubt he gave more back to me and my team than we gave to him.”

During this time, Woody and his mom stayed in a Back Bay condo, which was offered to them by the grandparents of a fellow Boston College student. She was a year older, and a stranger to Woody.

The support from the community didn’t end there. Boston College priests came to give mass to Woody in his hospital room, and a professor came to see him. Friends created a “Woody Strong” banner, and sometimes spent their weekend nights with their friend.

The undying support gave Woody what he needed to push forward with grace.

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘It seems like you had a smile on your face the whole time,’ and it wasn’t really my doing. It was because everyone was doing so many things,” Woody said. “It was hard to be super sad when I was seeing this whole community be so supportive of someone that was one of their own.”

To recuperate and continue treatment, he left Boston for a few months to move back to Minnesota and the University of Minnesota Masonic Center.

Back to Boston

In January of 2019, Woody was finally able to return to his favorite place to finish up his sophomore year.

“Coming back to BC was exciting and overwhelming,” He said. “I was the happiest I had been in a year and a half.”

Of course, despite the support he had and the happiness of returning to school, the process to recovery brought challenges for Woody. It was difficult for him to see the friends he originally made at BC continue on their college journey when he was a year behind. As happy as he was for them, it still brought on complicated feelings.

But Woody didn’t let those feelings negate his positive outlook. He eventually had an epiphany instead.

“Most people don’t have to deal with something like this, so I had to do a little bit of talking to myself,” He said. “I told myself, ‘Hey, you’re not different from everyone else, you just have a different path, and you’re going to get over this. And it will all be fine. It’s just going to take a little bit longer.’”

When he returned to BC, Woody also came back to Dana-Farber to continue low-dose chemotherapy. He finished it the week before his college graduation in 2021, and on his last day of treatment, Woody’s team at Dana-Farber threw him a party. He stayed for hours, talking to the doctors and nurses who had become his team and, as he described, his great friends.

Woody and his care team celebrating his graduation and the end of chemotherapy.

Turning the page

Today, Woody is working out of Minneapolis for an investment bank.

“In a two-week span, I went from being a college student who is still getting cancer treatment, to being a college graduate who is no longer getting treatment and is living in a new city,” he says.

His hopes for these next steps of his life reflect what so many people have showed him throughout his cancer journey: goodness.

“I don’t want to just be known as someone who survived cancer. I want to be known as a good friend, good brother, and maybe one day a good father, all those things,” he says. “I am definitely excited to begin this new chapter of my life.”

9 thoughts on “Leukemia Survivor Finishes College and Treatment at the Same Time”

  1. What an amazing story. Congratulations Woody! Dr Luskin is amazing and all the caregivers. They will forever feel like family to me. Enjoy every minute, celebrate often and I wish you much success.

    Reply
  2. A wonderful story about Woody, I was diagnosed with CLL 25 years ago, have been a patient at DFC ever since. Dealing with Acute is a lot worse then what I had to deal with.l was working for the Olympics in Atlanta,found out about my CLL the week before opening ceremony,which I was in , blown away,Glad I had something else to think about
    I’m 80 now ,still going strong,kayaking,pickle tennis ,walking my dog, enjoying life
    Have seven healthy grand kids
    Hope woody has a long and healthy life.He is off to a great start.sounds like he has a wonderful attitude

    Reply

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