OHSU Knight Cancer Institute

Leukemia Patient Stories

Robert Shick's story

"My life's been given back to me"

When Robert Shick learned at age 44 that he had a white blood count that was 30 times higher than normal, he was shocked and devastated. He’d always been healthy and active. The hardest part was sharing the news that he had chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) with his wife and three children.

Several days after his diagnosis, Shick began taking Gleevec. Within five weeks, his blood count was back to normal and his health had improved considerably. Before Gleevec, the only proven cure was a stem cell transplant, which carries significant risks.

Today, Shick lives a normal and healthy life. He has no side effects from the treatment, and has been able to maintain an exercise routine. He has also seen one daughter graduate from college, one daughter graduate from high school, and his son make his high school basketball team.

As a living example of the benefits of cancer research, Shick has become an active member of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and the OHSU Foundation Board. 

Matt McCallum's story

Fighting cancer with positivity and a personal army

Matt McCallum smiling on his wedding day.

Matt McCallum was in the best shape of his life and training for a half marathon when it started: the exhaustion, headaches and body pains. Then, at a chiropractor appointment, he fainted.

His fiancé, Gabi, rushed him to an emergency department, and McCallum was hospitalized for 21 days. In June 2014, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a fast-growing form of cancer of the blood and bone marrow. He underwent a bone marrow transplant at OHSU later that year.

"I don't know what I'd do without Gabi," McCallum says. "She is my rock, my inspiration — she's my everything. "From the moment I met her, I knew we'd be together, and I'm incredibly lucky she's on this journey with me."

After McCallum's diagnosis, Gabi created "Matt's Army," a Facebook group to keep friends, family and loved ones connected and up-to-date on his progress. The group quickly grew and has been an invaluable source of support and encouragement.

This wasn't the first time McCallum had been touched by cancer. His father had been undergoing cancer treatment in Minnesota. Now they could talk on the phone while simultaneously getting infusions thousands of miles apart. McCallum says he learned a lot about pain management from his dad. They'd compare notes, share stories, and ultimately, their experience with cancer strengthened their relationship.

Focus on the positive

McCallum has had many ups and downs during his treatment, but he says keeping a positive attitude and a sense of humor have been integral to his recovery. He and Gabi named his IV cart "Johnny 5" after the movie "Short Circuit." And to make sure McCallum kept active during treatment, they'd track miles logged on the 14th floor of Kohler Pavilion with "mic drops." Eleven laps on the floor equaled one mile, and for each mile completed they added a paper microphone to his door. Together, they covered some serious ground — 42 miles in 23 days.

"Cancer is terrible," McCallum says. "It's important to focus on the good things."

There have been some very good times during his treatment. McCallum and Gabi were married in 2015 and spent their honeymoon in Europe. They love spending time with their dog, a golden doodle named Amara. McCallum has a collection of more than 200 board games that he enjoys. He also spends time hiking, biking, camping, reading and playing video games, and he recently took up archery.

Matt McCallum and Gabi walking down the aisle at their wedding

Connecting with a genetic match

Two years after his bone marrow transplant, McCallum connected with his donor and "genetic twin," Michael Brenner, an unknown and unrelated 27-year-old from Germany who donated marrow as part of the Be the Match program operated by the National Marrow Donor Program.

Two previous marrow matches had fallen through, and McCallum says it was heartbreaking each time. He was incredibly relieved and thankful when the transplant happened.

McCallum and his "army" sent a care package that included letters, thank-you cards and some specialties from the United States. Soon after, Matt received a letter from Michael that moved him to tears. Michael shared more about himself, his family, his motivation for participating in the match program and his gratitude for the connection. He also included a lucky penny, a good luck charm for continued health and healing.

"It's amazing to be so connected to someone so far away that you've never met," McCallum says. "Without Michael, my recovery would not have been possible."

McCallum also credits his care team for his recovery. He says everyone he encountered was supportive, motivating and always went the extra mile. In one instance, a team member made him a chocolate peanut butter milkshake when nothing else sounded good.

Fighting cancer in a new way

"I was so impressed with the care I received at OHSU," McCallum says. "I made a promise to myself that when I recovered from my transplant I was going to work for the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and join the fight against cancer."

Today, McCallum coordinates clinical trials for the prostate cancer research team at the Knight Cancer Institute and says it's a dream come true.

"The data we gather on these trials helps us better understand the disease and paves the way for future therapies and treatments," he says. "I can't think of a better reason to get out of bed in the morning."

LaDonna Lopossa's story

Among the first to try Gleevec

Brian Druker, M.D., and Ladonna Lapossa.

I was ready to die in December 1999. Six months earlier, I had been diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML); at the time, most patients were given about five years to live. I wasn’t so lucky, however, and my health deteriorated rapidly over the next six months. After struggling with the side effects of interferon, I told my family I was ready to die naturally and soon entered hospice care. My husband, George, gave away most of my belongings and had secured a U-Haul truck so he could move to Southern California.

That’s when he went to a nearby Safeway to purchase the day’s newspaper. His trip may have saved my life.

A small article on the newspaper’s front page mentioned a promising clinical trial for a drug called STI-571 (now called Gleevec). The drug did something revolutionary: It attacked the cancerous cells in my body while leaving healthy cells alone, and it held the promise of turning CML into a chronic, manageable condition rather than a death sentence. The article mentioned the early positive results of the clinical trial, which was spearheaded by researcher Brian Druker, M.D., who is now director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

We visited Dr. Druker’s office shortly thereafter, and I was given my first dose of Gleevec on Feb. 15, 2000. I would later join the second phase of the clinical trial; Gleevec would ultimately receive FDA approval the following year.

I knew within one week that Dr. Druker was on his way to something transformative with Gleevec. When I came to his office, I couldn’t eat, and I felt miserable all the time. But, after one week on the trial medication, I could sit up in bed and eat food again. And within a month, I felt like I was finally getting well.

Roughly 16 years after diagnosis and 15 years after my first dose of Gleevec, I am feeling well and am enjoying life. I volunteer in my community and love living along the Columbia River in southwest Washington. Nobody thought I would live this long, and I am grateful for the work Dr. Druker did to make it possible. I am truly blessed that Dr. Druker allowed me to be in that study. Without his tireless work, I wouldn’t be here today.

Katie Knudson's story

“I had Gleevec”

Katie Knudson, 14, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) in 2001 at age 6.

Before the advent of Gleevec, the cancer therapy developed by Brian Druker, M.D., director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, her only option would have been a bone marrow and stem cell transplant, a procedure requiring weeks in the hospital.

After taking Gleevec for eight months, doctors at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital reported that there was no detectable leukemia in Knudson’s body. She now lives the cancer-free life of a typical teenager.

OHSU Doernbecher was the first hospital in the world to test the effectiveness of Gleevec in children.

Ed McLaughlin's story

Aiming for the Ironman

Ed McLaughlin

I thought I was in the best shape of my life after I had just completed a 100-mile bicycle ride and a half-marathon in 2008. But a routine blood test the following week found otherwise: It revealed that I had a rare blood cancer: chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).

I wasn’t optimistic: I had known a close friend whose brother died of CML in the 1990s, and I felt it was a death sentence.

But, as it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t have any symptoms, and my cancer was caught early enough to be treated effectively. I talked with my oncologist about a variety of options and soon thereafter contacted Brian Druker, M.D., director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, about taking Gleevec, the first treatment of its kind.

Gleevec had received FDA approval seven years earlier, proving it was possible to attack cancerous cells in CML patients without harming healthy cells. Thanks to the new treatment, CML was no longer a death sentence, but rather a condition managed by the once-a-day pill.

At the time, my disease had progressed. I went from having no symptoms to sleeping 17 hours a day because of fatigue. Dr. Druker thought I may never have the energy to run a marathon again, but I remained hopeful. I had run more than 40 marathons to that point and was determined to run again, no matter the odds or outlook.

After taking time off from training to acclimate to Gleevec, I was fortunate enough to get my life back. I have run six marathons since being diagnosed, and I completed an Ironman triathlon in 2012 — finishing in the top 20% of my age group.

It was a very emotional experience, but I wasn’t going to let this disease get the best of me. I feel eternally grateful each and every day to Dr. Druker, the staff at OHSU and to everyone involved with the development of Gleevec. Thanks to them, I am able to live a very fulsome and active life, and I never take a day for granted. I am truly blessed.

Suse Skinner's story

Sharing "The Good Ship OHSU"

Suse Skinner lit up the room with her smile, positivity and humor. A breast cancer survivor, she went on to battle acute myeloid leukemia. In August 2016, she was admitted to OHSU, where she underwent 24/7 chemotherapy for six days followed by six weeks of recovery. Skinner wrote and performed the song,  "The Good Ship OHSU" to show her gratitude to everyone on her care  team: the nurses; Dr. Uma Borate and Dr. Rachel Cook; the cafeteria staff; and the people who kept her room "comfortable and clean." Read more and watch KPTV coverage.