Leukemia Survivor

Great medical care and personal support are keys to success

Richard Proehl, of Parsons, Kansas, likes to keep busy. Over the years, he's worked in the banking industry and served two stints as a county extension agent. When he retired about five years ago, it lasted two weeks. Currently, he works full time in banking and also represents his district in the Kansas House of Representatives.

About 19 years ago, he had a bleeding ulcer and had to have blood work done regularly. When the blood work revealed a burgeoning white blood cell count, additional tests showed he also had chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), caught early in the chronic phase.


My first thought when I learned that I had CML was — I don't want to die! We decided to go to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas for my treatment. After a day of tests, the doctor came into my room, sat down, and visited like he didn't have another thing in the world to do. "If I can keep you alive five years," he said, "I think there will be a cure out there that will save your life."

So they put me in a clinical trial, giving me daily interferon and cytarabine (araC) for five years. To be honest, I felt terrible the entire time. Food didn't taste good, so I lost about 40 pounds. I ran a constant temperature, spiking to about 104 degrees when the treatment was injected. I lived on Tylenol for those five years.

I was lucky to have a supportive family, but watching my distress and not being able to do anything about it was hard on my wife, Linda, and our two kids. I know I sometimes had a temper and was less than nice during that time, and I feel bad for that. It's the way we humans often are — when we feel the worst, we strike out at those closest to us. We shouldn't, but we do.

I just took life day by day, and I didn't quit working. I knew I could feel lousy at home or feel lousy at work, but if I sat at home I'd feel sorry for myself. It's better to do something productive if at all possible.

When I couldn't tolerate the side effects any longer, they took me off interferon and araC. Then the CML came back full blown. Fortunately, by then a clinical trial was able to offer me the experimental drug Gleevec, so I started taking it. Gleevec has side effects – but they're minor compared to those of interferon and araC!

I've now been on Gleevec for 14-1/2 years. I currently take 400 mg daily and return to MD Anderson once a year for a checkup. I just got back from my latest appointment, which was great – no clinical signs of CML for the second year in a row. If that happens again next year, I might be able to stop taking Gleevec. In that case, I'd need blood tests every two months, and if the CML returned, I'd probably go back on Gleevec for the rest of my life.

I am so fortunate. In the 19 years since my diagnosis, I've had the joy of five grandchildren, the oldest soon turning 15. And I have a new attitude: Things that would have upset me in the past just roll off me like water off a duck's back. If it's not life or death, it's not that important.

In my opinion, people facing a cancer diagnosis need the best medical care possible, a good attitude, support at home and a belief in something higher than themselves. I have those, and they've helped me stay alive.

I volunteer with the Bloch Cancer Hotline, which matches me with people diagnosed with CML. I encourage them, telling them they can win the fight with this disease and have a productive and fun life. I also tell them that a good attitude is extremely important.

I urge them to learn all they can about CML. When I was diagnosed 19 years ago, we found a lot of CML information in the library at MD Anderson. My doctor had written some of those publications, and I always kept an extra copy of one to send to anyone I met who had been diagnosed with CML.

Now, you can get information online at websites like PatientResource.com, which makes becoming informed so much easier. Armed with good information, a good attitude, good support, and strong faith, a person with CML can win against this disease.


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