The date was May 13, 2004. It also happened to be his oldest son’s 25th birthday.
“It was like, ‘Happy birthday! I’ve got leukemia,’” Wally says.
CML diagnosis leads to emergency surgery
As unwelcome as the CML diagnosis was, it didn’t come as a complete surprise. Wally had known something was seriously wrong for about a week. He’d also had a severe backache for several days.
When the pain finally became unbearable, Wally went to the doctor. He ended up having emergency surgery to remove a tumor the size of two grapefruits from outside his small intestine. Afterward, the doctor told him it was a pair of lymph nodes that had collected about 300,000 white blood cells between them. “I was scared, but I knew CML was treatable,” Wally says.
During the operation, doctors also removed most of Wally’s small intestine, which left him with chronic diarrhea. Now, he takes an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal once a day. “It works great,” Wally says. “Life is good.”
A second opinion
After surgery, Wally began taking the chemotherapy drug Gleevec. He experienced some unpleasant side effects — such as a diminished sense of smell — so he switched to Tasigna and later to Bosulif. In 2006, his doctor sent him to MD Anderson for a second opinion.
“I was very impressed with Dr. Jorge Cortes and the whole facility,” says Wally, who decided to receive all of his care here. “The Leukemia department makes me feel like everyone there cared about me.”
Drug fatigue prompts stem cell transplant inquiry
Wally was, however, tired of the endless stream of medications. Over the course of nine years, he estimates he took about 3,500 chemo pills. So he researched stem cell transplants and approached his doctor about the possibility of getting one.
“He said I was the ideal candidate because I was in manageable remission,” Wally says. “He referred me to Dr. Richard Champlin, who found me two donors.”
New life from an allogenic stem cell transplant
On Feb. 25, 2014, Wally received an allogeneic stem cell transplant (from a matched, but unrelated donor). A week before the procedure, he also received an injection of umbilical cord blood as part of a clinical trial exploring natural killer cells’ ability to destroy micro-metastatic cancer. (Cord blood is known to contain these types of cells.)
“I figure the treatment must have worked because here I am,” Wally says. “I also didn’t get graft-versus-host disease, which a lot of transplant recipients do.”
Wally’s immune system was a little slow to bounce back after the allogeneic stem cell transplant, but by June 2015, he was well enough to start volunteering at MD Anderson.
“I had the time. And I just felt called to give back a little of what was given to me,” Wally says. On Thursdays, he volunteers in the myCancerConnection Mays Hospitality Center and shares comfort, support and complimentary refreshments with patients. And on Tuesdays, Wally volunteers in the Leukemia Center, assisting patients and sharing information on the considerable resources MD Anderson has to offer.
Whenever he speaks with other patients, he also makes a point of sharing hope. “I consider myself the poster child for the Stem Cell department,” he says. “The cancer is now completely undetectable in my system. So I tell people not to give up.”