OHSU Knight Cancer Institute

Leukemia Patient Stories

Hai Pham's story

"I can't give up."

Portrait of Hai Pham with a green background.

When Hai Pham found out he had cancer, the summer before starting his residency program in dentistry at OHSU, his first thought was of his family. “I still help out my parents and my siblings. I’m the oldest, and so the pressure is on,” he says. “I told myself over and over: I can’t give up. I need to help support my family.” Read Hai's story.

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."

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, including nurses, Dr. Rachel Cook, the cafeteria staff and the people who kept her room "comfortable and clean." Read more and watch KPTV coverage.