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Patient Corner: Nate Hawkins

I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia with maturation (AML M2) exactly 6 years ago today (March 10, 2009). I had been feeling tired and ill, with painful headaches for a while. After a second visit to my doctor, and after a blood test, I got the results and was told to go to the hospital, where a bone marrow biopsy confirmed acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

My local hospital was not well equipped to handle my case, so I was referred to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston three hours away, and transferred by ambulance. I remember the ride down, but after that, my memory goes blank. I know from the stories of my family that I was lucid for a couple of days. After a fall in my room, an MRI showed severe brain stem swelling, I was placed into a drug-induced coma for 18 days to give doctors time to address the brain stem problem.

About a week after I was brought out of the coma, doctors told me I was in remission. I had to learn to sit up on my own, feed myself, and most importantly, learn to walk again. Doctors weren't going to release me from the hospital until I could walk on my own to the bathroom in my hospital room. When I was finally released from inpatient treatment, my family and I got temporary lodging nearby. There, I worked to climb the four steps to enter the mobile home. I slowly learned to drive again in the parking lot. My vision was a wreck so it was months before I recovered enough that I could drive on actual roads again.

I was to receive nine rounds of high dose chemotherapy over the course of the next several months. Due to the effects of treatment on my immune system, I had to minimize my contact with the outside world, and I had to limit my physical activity because the drugs were hard on my heart. I followed my doctors' orders and they stopped intense treatment early after 8 rounds of chemotherapy because I was doing so well. The only physical activity I got was walking through the hospital (after I learned to walk again) to my appointments, and very low intensity work on a stationary bicycle, as long as I wore a heart rate monitor and kept my heart rate below 150bpm.

I was given the all clear during the winter of 2009/2010, but physically, I was a mess. I was weak. I was inflexible. I had no stamina. My balance was shaky. I could not run to my car in the rain to avoid getting wet. Also, I had been six months into a master's degree program upon diagnosis, and I fully intended to finish my degree. During the spring semester of 2010, I returned to school to work some on my thesis organizing data obtained by others while I was in treatment, and to work on completing the courses I had begun the semester of my diagnosis. Working with my adviser, we kept my workload and expectations relatively low because of the limitations ‘chemo brain’ placed on my attention span, focus, and memory. I was not "officially" registered for class, because I technically registered and paid a year before. Only one was offered that semester, which helped keep my workload within my capabilities.

I was physically active prior to my diagnosis, and enjoyed mountain biking. Due to the physical effects of the coma, I could not ride my mountain bike on the trails for quite some time. At first, I rode my bicycle around my neighborhood. Once my balance was improved, I began to ride my bicycle the four miles from home to class as training to build my strength, balance, and fitness. By summertime, I was able to ride my mountain bike on easy trails in the woods again.

Physically, I was still extremely limited. I was still stiff and inflexible. I was still very shaky when trying to jog. It was time to do more. I signed up for a physical training session at the university rec center. I had signed up in the springtime, but it wasn't until later in the summer that a trainer had a time slot available for me. To improve my leg strength and fitness, I signed up for a training program designed for cancer survivors returning to physical activities. Participating remotely, I was given access to a trainer through e-mail communication who helped design workouts for me.

In August of 2010, my wife and I went to Hawaii for a week of vacation. One of the activities we did while we were there was to rent mountain bikes in Kailua-Kona, and ride them on the Kaloko mountain bike trails in the Honuaʻula Forest Reserve. It was difficult, but such a rewarding experience. Also, in August, I attended a young survivors’ retreat in Austin. I made many friends that weekend and many of us still keep in touch. In early November, I completed a local 5K race with help from the folks in my training program and the trainer who helped me regain much of my strength.

I began practicing yoga to help with some lingering flexibility issues I still had, particularly in my shoulders. Yoga also helped significantly with my core strength and I believe it also helped me focus more. I was back to attending classes as a full time student by this point, and I was having a difficult time from a cognitive standpoint. Things that had been easy for me my whole life were suddenly very difficult. Learning to cope with those changes was extremely challenging, and yoga helped me focus and work through them.

I was able to finish coursework for my degree by the end of 2011. In the spring of 2012, my wife and I participated in a yoga retreat in Costa Rica that was organized by the owner of the yoga studio we attended. It was a fantastic time of relaxation, vacation fun, and yoga practice.

It was just what I needed so I could return to school to finish my thesis and earn my degree, which I was able to do by the end of the year. It may have taken me a little longer to finish that master's degree, but it was all the more rewarding because of the extra hard work I had to invest to complete it.

After finishing my degree, I moved to Indianapolis, IN. Using the principles I learned in my training program as a foundation, I trained for and completed the 2013 One America Indy 500 Festival Mini Marathon. That race was exceptionally hard on my knees, though. I spent most of that summer recovering from the strain. I don't run much anymore as a result, but I spend far more time riding my mountain bike.

I continue to build my fitness, but in many respects, I consider myself more fit now than I was prior to my diagnosis. I have a couple of fitness related goals I would like to achieve. First, I want to complete a 50 mile off-road ride in a single day. I came close in 2014 and I believe I will achieve that one this year. My other goal is to complete 500 miles or more of total off-road riding in 2015. A busy summer work schedule limited me towards that goal in 2014. I have over 100 miles of off-road winter riding so far in 2015, so I feel as though I have a good start if I can keep it up throughout the summer and fall.

AML survivor Nate Hawkins

I continue to build my fitness, but in many respects, I consider myself more fit now than I was prior to my diagnosis.

Nate Hawkins

AML Survivor