Fighting cancer with positivity and a personal army
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 Matt 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," says Matt. "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 Matt's diagnosis, Gabi created "Matt's Army," a Facebook group to keep friends, family and loved ones connected and up-to-date on Matt's progress. The group quickly grew and has been an invaluable source of support and encouragement.
This wasn't the first time Matt 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. Matt 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
Matt has had many ups and downs during his treatment but he says that 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 ensure Matt 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," says Matt. "It's important to focus on the good things."
There have been some very good times during his treatment. Matt and Gabi were married in 2015 and spent their honeymoon in Europe. They love spending time with their dog, a golden doodle named Amara, and Matt has a collection of more than 200 board games which he enjoys. Matt also spends time hiking, biking, camping, reading, playing video games, and recently took up archery.
Connecting with a genetic match
And two years after his bone marrow transplant, Matt 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 Matt says it was heartbreaking each time. He was incredibly relieved and thankful when the transplant happened.
Matt 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," said Matt. "Without Michael, my recovery would not have been possible."
Matt 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," says Matt. "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, Matt 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," says Matt. "I can't think of a better reason to get out of bed in the morning."