In May 2003, Kenneth Woo was enjoying eight years of living cancer-free, having overcome his second bout with Hodgkin's disease in May 1995. But after that eight-year stretch, he began experiencing more health problems. Simple daily activities were taking a toll on his body.
His heart would race after a routine trip up the stairs in his two-story Sugar Land, Texas, home. Even a day spent with friends on the golf course was tiresome. He felt dizzy every time he bent down to pick up the golf ball.
Considering he had gone so long without a cancer relapse, Woo knew his chance of recurrence was slim, so his first thought was that maybe he was anemic. But a subsequent visit to the doctor indicated a diagnosis that was much worse. What he had was acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), an aggressive form of leukemia with a low survival rate.
"The doctor told me that AML was a typical side effect of the type of radiation and chemotherapy treatments I received from Hodgkin's disease," Woo says. "Because two of my chromosomes were mutated from previous cancer treatments, it didn't look promising."
Facing a new challenge
The diagnosis left Woo speechless and shocked. The fact that he had leukemia was a difficult reality to face. And the fact that the survival rate was less than 20% was an even bigger blow.
As Stefan Faderl, M.D., explained to Woo's wife, Clara, although the disease wouldn't kill him, the chemotherapy might, particularly because of the highly toxic level of treatment required.
Woo was enrolled in a clinical trial developed from a pediatric leukemia treatment, and he immediately began chemotherapy.
Not only did he lose 40 pounds, but he couldn't see his two young daughters for weeks because he was in isolation. And when his blood cell count dropped to zero, he could only see his wife through a glass window.
Armed with his strong Christian faith and the support of family and friends, Woo found the strength and motivation to fight through the cancer.
Finding a match
Though Woo's AML treatment went well, Marcos de Lima, M.D., associate professor in MD Anderson's Department of Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy, told him that it wasn't all over just yet. Chemotherapy alone would not cure him. His best option for a long-term cure would be to receive a stem cell transplant.
With his family in town visiting from Hong Kong, doctors began typing for a suitable donor. Woo's oldest sister, Emily, turned out to be a perfect match.
As part of another clinical trial, Woo received the drugs fludarabine and intravenous busulfan, a combination invented by Borje Andersson, M.D., Ph.D., professor in Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy. The combination made Woo's immune system less likely to reject the transplant and more receptive to the new stem cells.
The procedure was complete on Oct. 3, 2003. After five difficult months, Woo had won the battle against AML.
"It's been seven years since the transplant, and since then I've been doing well," Woo says. "There are still some minor side effects, but they're manageable."
Life after AML
Woo continues to take anti-rejection drugs to keep his immune system from fighting the transplanted stem cells. It's a small inconvenience, and it's one that he's happy to do considering it keeps his body healthy and free from the AML that threatened to take his life.
As a result of his experience, Woo is a firm believer in donating stem cells every chance he gets, as is his wife. He also continues to give back to MD Anderson, volunteering at the hospital and working with myCancerConnection, MD Anderson's one-on-one support program for patients and caregivers.
"Without having gone through that experience, I couldn't do what I do now," Woo says. "Friends and patients going through treatments can identify with me, and it helps them to know that I understand, that I've been there.
"It's one thing for a doctor to explain something to a patient. But as a patient myself, I can relate to them on a different level and explain to them what it's going to be like. Of course, everyone's experience is unique, but what's important is that I give patients hope."