FRIDAY, Sept. 26, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- In just a few days at the end of 1998, John Shaw's life was forever changed.
Shaw, then a 38-year-old actuary from Connecticut, had a few weeks off between jobs so he decided to get a physical. He hadn't had one in three or four years. Nothing was really wrong except maybe he'd been a little tired and he'd lost some weight. He chalked it up to the stress of work.
Shaw started his new job on Dec. 28. Two days later, his doctor called to say his white blood cell counts were far too high and he needed more blood work done.
So Shaw headed straight for the nearest lab and offered his arm for more blood. By mid-afternoon, his doctor called back to say the counts were still sky high, it wasn't a lab error, and Shaw needed to be in his office first thing next morning. His white blood cell count, the doctor told him the next day, was about 147,000, when normal was in the 5,000 to 10,000 range.
The doctor had already made an appointment with an oncologist for that morning. Shaw raced over there for a biopsy, a bone marrow aspiration and the verdict. Bolstered by the presence of his parents and brother, he was told he had chronic myelogenous leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow that causes blood-forming cells to grow uncontrollably.
Shaw's reaction was to ask the doctor to write the words down on a piece of paper.
The oncologist told Shaw the best option for a cure was a bone marrow transplant, but they first needed to get his white blood cell count down. Shaw went into the hospital on New Year's Eve, and then started doing his own research.
The transplant was put on hold, although Shaw's parents and brother underwent testing to see if they were a match. (It's rare that parents will match). Doctors at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston told him about a study that had just been published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicating that a year on the drug interferon-alpha would not hurt your chances of getting a transplant down the road.
Shaw returned home and what he calls his "bombshell" -- his only sibling did not match for a transplant. "I knew then that it was going to be an unrelated donor transplant," he recalls. "Before I was willing to do that, I wanted to try something else because the statistics are worse for unrelated as opposed to related transplants."
Shaw started interferon along with two other drugs on a clinical trial basis in April of 1999. That put him into remission and gave him a semblance of normality. "I was tired but I was working," he says. "I was trying to make things as normal as possible."
The interferon results were mixed. So, in March 2001, M.D. Anderson doctors enrolled him in a clinical trial for Gleevec, a new molecularly targeted drug. It was several months before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would actually approve the drug.
Within 90 days, Shaw was in complete remission.
"I felt great. There were no more injections. The fatigue went away. I gained 20 pounds. I'm back to normal," he says. "Interferon is a lot more difficult to be on. Once I went on the Gleevec, my life turned around. It was like it was precancer. I'm like a different person."
Shaw has his blood checked every four to five weeks. And goes to the gym three times a week.
A few things are still unresolved. His disease still shows a minute presence at the molecular level, but Shaw's doctors don't really know what this means because they've never been able to get the levels so low before. Also, Shaw doesn't know if he'll have to take Gleevec pills forever or if he will be able to stop them at some point.
For now, he says, "I forget that I have leukemia, even though I take those four pills every day. To think that what used to be a life-threatening disease may become something chronic that you just take a pill for everyday is amazing, nothing less than amazing."