Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Survivor
Walter Harp is a healthy guy. So when his back started hurting he wasn’t inclined to complain. He figured it was a pinched nerve. But the next day it was still there and he actually stayed home from work.
“My wife told me I should go to the doctor,” Walter says. “I was in enough pain that I didn’t want to drive myself, so my mother-in-law took me. The doctor didn’t think much of it and sent me home with pain medications without doing X-rays or anything.”
The medications helped that night but within a day or two, the pain was back with a vengeance. “I was baffled,” Walter says. “The pain was near the top of my back and I went to the emergency room at midnight because it was so bad.”
Walter got more pain meds and the doctors began to perform several tests over the next two hours. Although groggy from the medications, Walter understood that what they found was a low platelet count of about 50,000; normal is 150,000. “But I didn’t know what that meant,” he says. The pain went away and Walter thought he was fine.
But a week later he began to feel like he was coming down with the flu. “I was about to go on a business trip and so I went to the doctor to make sure it would be OK,” Walter says. “My doctor told me I should see a hematologist for the low platelet count, but there didn’t seem to be any rush.” Walter flew to California that evening and in the middle of the night, once again his pain returned.
“It was unbearable,” Walter recalls. “I walked to Walgreens and bought everything I could for back pain… ice packs, hot pads, Tylenol.” But, by 4 a.m., he knew he wasn’t going to be able to make his meeting and he took himself to the hospital.
In the emergency room more blood tests were run and his platelet count was now down to 8,000. “They wouldn’t let me leave the hospital,” Walter says. He was in a lot of pain and over the next 24 to 48 hours he learned that he had acute lymphocytic leukemia, a type of blood and bone marrow cancer that produces too many white blood cells called lymphoblasts. This disease is sometimes referred to as acute lymphoblastic or acute lymphoid leukemia, and is termed “acute” because it progresses quickly and if left untreated may be fatal within weeks.
ALL is the most common childhood cancer but is much more rare in adults.
“It didn’t really register with me what I had at the time,” Walter says. His wife Angela flew down from Seattle to bring him home. A radiation oncologist friend recommended Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. So, at about 7 p.m. they drove straight from Sea-Tac International Airport, to the Hutchinson Center. “But we realized it wasn’t a hospital!” Walter says, and decided to drive to Overlake Hospital, an SCCA Network Member hospital, that night, which was close to their home. They started me on chemotherapy right away, right then.”
Walter worked for the next two months while he received chemotherapy. His regimen was five to six days of treatment and three weeks of rest. After the first two sessions of chemotherapy, his leukemic cells were down 49 percent. Remission is when those cells are at 0 percent. “It wasn’t a good sign that the cells were at 49 percent,” Walter says. “Especially after two treatments.”
Watler's physician from Overlake, Dr. Tanya Wahl, who once worked at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, switched his chemotherapy drugs and with the next treatment his leukemic cells were down to 2 percent. Dr. Wahl then referred Walter to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance for a bone marrow transplant.
“I got in pretty quickly,” Walter says. “I learned that they won’t do a transplant if the leukemic cells are about 5 percent. When I got to SCCA, they tested me again, and my levels were at .05 percent!”
There was a lot of information in a short amount of time, Walter says. Almost too much in some cases, but in the end, his doctors at SCCA assured him that his chance of surviving this disease was good. He did not have the Philadelphia chromosome with his ALL, which would have made his disease harder to beat.
Bone Marrow Transplant
Walter's brother turned out not to be a match for transplantation, so Walter had to have an unrelated donor. There were only nine matches in their first search. Two of the nine didn't work out. Walter says. The third donor was good to go and he and Walter has met his donor in person. "He's now part of our family."
Day zero for Walter was March 10, 2009—the day he received his transplant. He spent only 18 days at UW Medical Center for engraftment to take place and then was allowed to return home to his family.
“I’m feeling backing to normal now,” Walter says. His once minor graft-versus-host disease in his mouth is gone and he's tapering off immunosuppression medications. He’s back to work full time and getting back into the swing of what his life was like before his ALL diagnosis.
“During the transplant process, Day 100 seemed so far away,” he says. Now he barely remembers many of the details of that time at all.
“I’m definitely in remission,” he says. “Cure comes at five years... is the 'official,' but after one to two years, particularly with acute leukemia, you’re pretty much on solid ground.” He’s participating in the Long-Term Follow-up Program offered at SCCA, which he finds “really outstanding.”
“It was very telling to me that so many of the people who work at SCCA have been there (the parent companies actually) for 20 to 25 years,” Walter says. “SCCA is very refreshing. The views and furniture in and of itself are very comforting. The people are extremely caring, kind, and attentive.”
For fun, Walter enjoys sailing and traveling a bit. He plays soccer and mostly he enjoys being with his family. "I would be happy to talk to anyone who has questions – I can be found on Facebook – just send me a message and identify that you have questions about Leukemia."