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Multiple-Cancer Survivor Battles, Bounces Back

CancerWise - March 2007

By Dawn Dorsey

Like a prizefighter facing down an obstinate foe, John McKemie refuses to quit. For 20 years, cancer has taken its best shots, knocking McKemie down but never out. Each time, he jumps back in the ring for another round in the fight for his life.

As a banking executive and retired U.S. Army reserve colonel, McKemie knows how to meet a challenge head on. It is a quality he has drawn on repeatedly since he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) in 1987.

"I knew with leukemia there would be no short-term curative process,” McKemie says. “I knew it would be a marathon instead of a sprint. But I never once thought I wouldn't eventually get better."

Leukemia delivers the first blow

After his diagnosis at M. D. Anderson in 1987, McKemie tried interferon, a newly developed drug to treat leukemia. When it didn’t work after a year, he traveled to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle for a bone marrow transplant.

One hundred days later, only six of the 31 patients who started their transplants at the same time survived. A year later, only McKemie was still alive. His luck and health continued for 12 years.

In 2000, when McKemie began to feel fatigued and lightheaded, he was sure it was his heart. A thorough physical showed his heart was fine, but he had relapsed to stage two CML.

Clinical trial offers hope

John McKemie

McKemie was treated with a donor lymphocyte infusion, but it failed and he went into blast crisis, an accelerated stage of leukemia, leading to acute, possibly terminal disease.

While that was bad news, it meant he was eligible for a clinical trial of the drug STI 571, which later became known as Gleevec®. Within a week his symptoms subsided, and he continued to show dramatic improvements over the next few months.

When McKemie began to research the drug, he found it was often effective, but the average time to relapse was six months. So he opted for a second stem cell transplant.

In 2002, he had a basal cell skin cancer removed. Then, in 2003, he was treated for prostate cancer.

A new saga begins

Just when he thought cancer was finished with him, McKemie noticed signs of internal bleeding in 2004. After extensive testing, however, physicians were unable to find the cause. Finally, McKemie had a new type of test that involved swallowing a tiny camera. The resulting images showed bleeding masses in his small intestine, and in July 2005 three extramedullary (on the outside of the innermost portion of an organ) tumors were removed.

Shortly after, he began taking Gleevec again. A few months later, he noticed a pain in his side, and six months later another extramedullary tumor was diagnosed in his ribs. When he began having severe pain in one of his legs, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) revealed another tumor in the tibia (shin bone).

This meant Gleevec was not working, so in May 2006, he started a clinical trial for a drug called AMN 107. Within a week the pain in his side stopped; within two weeks the pain in his leg was gone. But within six months additional extramedullary infiltration was found in his throat, and early this year the cancer moved into his hip.

He climbs back in the ring

Despite it all, McKemie continues to be upbeat, work a full schedule and find time to volunteer with Anderson Network, a patient- and caregiver-support program at M. D. Anderson, even though he takes around-the-clock pain pills, which he doubles at night so he can sleep.

“I’m not going to let this thing defeat me,” he says. “I won’t just sit back and accept it.”

As a retired military man, McKemie is well aware of the value of knowing his enemy, and he has learned the worth of proactively establishing partnerships with the medical professionals who treat him.

“I have a vested interest in making sure I get the most out of every visit with every doctor,” he says. “If I don’t do my research and give them the best information possible, they can’t make the best diagnosis.

“I’ve seen that survivors tend to be more engaged in the process. People who just come into the hospital and say, ‘Heal me’, don’t fare as well.”

His advice? Be prepared

Over the years, McKemie has drawn on every tool he could find – staying active, relaxation, visualization, prayer, volunteering – and he encourages others to do the same.

“People have to find their own way,” he says. “But I tell them they need to be physically ready for the hard fight. They have to be mentally ready because they have a lot to think about and a lot of work to do. They have to be emotionally ready, to prepare themselves, their family and friends for the roller coaster. And they need to be spiritually ready. You have to mobilize all of these to effectively face cancer, live with it and hopefully get it behind you.”

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© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center