Beating the Odds of Acute Myelogenous Leukemia

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By Lana Maciel, Staff Writer

KWooAML.jpgIn May 2003, Kenneth Woo was enjoying eight years of living cancer-free, having overcome his second bout with Hodgkin's disease in May 1995. But after that eight-year stretch, he began experiencing more health problems. Simple daily activities were taking a toll on his body.

His heart would race after a routine trip up the stairs in his two-story Sugar Land, Texas, home. Even a day spent with friends on the golf course was tiresome. He felt dizzy every time he bent down to pick up the golf ball.

Considering he had gone so long without a cancer relapse, Woo knew his chance of recurrence was slim, so his first thought was that maybe he was anemic. But a subsequent visit to the doctor indicated a diagnosis that was much worse. What he had was acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), an aggressive form of leukemia with a low survival rate.

"The doctor told me that AML was a typical side effect of the type of radiation and chemotherapy treatments I received from Hodgkin's disease," Woo says. "Because two of my chromosomes were mutated from previous cancer treatments, it didn't look promising."

Facing a new challenge
The diagnosis left Woo speechless and shocked. The fact that he had leukemia was a difficult reality to face. And the fact that the survival rate was less than 20% was an even bigger blow.

As Stefan Faderl, M.D., associate professor in MD Anderson's Department of Leukemia, explained to Woo's wife, Clara, although the disease wouldn't kill him, the chemotherapy might, particularly because of the highly toxic level of treatment required.

Woo was enrolled in a clinical trial developed from a pediatric leukemia treatment, and he immediately began chemotherapy.

Not only did he lose 40 pounds, but he couldn't see his two young daughters for weeks because he was in isolation. And when his blood cell count dropped to zero, he could only see his wife through a glass window.

Armed with his strong Christian faith and the support of family and friends, Woo found the strength and motivation to fight through the cancer.

Finding a match
Though Woo's AML treatment went well, Marcos de Lima, M.D., associate professor in MD Anderson's Department of Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy, told him that it wasn't all over just yet. Chemotherapy alone would not cure him. His best option for a long-term cure would be to receive a stem cell transplant.

With his family in town visiting from Hong Kong, doctors began typing for a suitable donor. Woo's oldest sister, Emily, turned out to be a perfect match.

As part of another clinical trial, Woo received the drugs fludarabine and intravenous busulfan, a combination invented by Borje Andersson, M.D., Ph.D., professor in MD Anderson's Department of Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy. The combination made Woo's immune system less likely to reject the transplant and more receptive to the new stem cells.

The procedure was complete on Oct. 3, 2003. After five difficult months, Woo had won the battle against AML.

"It's been seven years since the transplant, and since then I've been doing well," Woo says. "There are still some minor side effects, but they're manageable."

Life after AML
Woo continues to take anti-rejection drugs to keep his immune system from fighting the transplanted stem cells. It's a small inconvenience, and it's one that he's happy to do considering it keeps his body healthy and free from the AML that threatened to take his life.

As a result of his experience, Woo is a firm believer in donating stem cells every chance he gets, as is his wife. He also continues to give back to MD Anderson, volunteering at the hospital and working with the Anderson Network, a patient-to-patient support organization that is part of the Department of Volunteer Services, as a mentor and supporter for other patients.

"Without having gone through that experience, I couldn't do what I do now," Woo says. "Friends and patients going through treatments can identify with me, and it helps them to know that I understand, that I've been there.

"It's one thing for a doctor to explain something to a patient. But as a patient myself, I can relate to them on a different level and explain to them what it's going to be like. Of course, everyone's experience is unique, but what's important is that I give patients hope."

Related Stories: Q&A: Intravenous Busulfan Before Stem Cell Transplant

MD Anderson resources:


Leukemia Care Center

Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy Center

Borje Andersson, M.D., Ph.D.

Additional resources:


A number of readers left comments about this story on the MD Anderson Facebook page. Below are a few of those comments

S. Mcmillan-Maker
I ♥ Dr. de Lima. He's my mom's dr. She had her SCT in March. :-) funny man with great bedside manner!

T. Taplin
This is a great SCT success story. Go Anderson !

R. Bridges
What a wonderful story. Those are the ones you want to hear about. God has truly blessed Mr. Woo and his family.

Z. Kinds-Brown
An Awesome Story!

S. Willheit Frederickson
Congratulations, Mr. Woo, we are so glad you have beaten down your leukemia and get to enjoy your life again with your family!

M Guevara-Hinojosa
Psalms118: 17 I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done. Praise the Lord...........

L. Painter
this is wonderful, Congrats are in order,

M. Field Velasco
How Awesome now go forth and enjoy every day of your life to the fullest ♥

T. Pike
What a wonderful story! Congratulations Mr. Woo.

Good Afternoon,
I saw a story on Mr. Kenneth Woo on a different forum and his positive outcome to Acute Leukemia. My brother just got diagnosed with the same kind of leukemia. He has never had a history of any other illnesses or issues and is currently pretty healthy other than this. He is currently at Stanford Medical Center in California. Could you please share with me your opinions regarding this and what should be our first step. I appreciate any input you might have on this subject and so happy that you have had good results with this patient. I am concerned about the chemo treatment, but if there's a good prognosis with it, then it's worth trying it. Do you know of anything other than chemo that might help in this situation? Thank you very much and God Bless you.

Hi Ana, we;re so sorry to hear about your brother. Please call 1-877-632-6789 to speak to our health information specialists. They can help answer your questions.

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