Patient Stories

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia Survivor

North Aspelund

  • Acute Lymphocytic LeukemiaDiagnosed with ALL at age 4
  • Treated with chemotherapy immediately
  • Complications upon returning home
  • Three years of chemotherapy until remission
  • Cured in 1996 with unrelated bone marrow transplant

Ten years post-transplant, North is ready to face the world as an adult. 

North Aspelund was born a healthy baby on December 22, 1987, but all that changed during a family vacation when North was only four years old.

In 1992, the Aspelund family – father North Sr., mother Jennifer, North Jr., and baby sister Brooke, left their home in Anchorage, Alaska to visit California. During their trip, young North became ill. Among other symptoms, he had persistent nose bleeds and his skin became mottled with tiny bruises, called pitikia. North Sr. and Jennifer took him to the emergency room at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles where he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

North was admitted to the hospital and began chemotherapy treatment immediately. His family stayed at Children’s until North’s cancer was in remission. Finally returning home to Anchorage several weeks later, their stay was brief. North had serious medical complications and was taken by air ambulance to Seattle Children’s, a parent organization to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Once North was stable, the Aspelund family, including baby sister Brooke, returned home to Anchorage. For the next three years, they returned to Seattle Children’s every 85 days for North’s chemotherapy treatments until his cancer again went into remission.

North enjoyed being cancer-free until July 1996 when, during a routine monthly exam, the doctor detected a lump in his right groin.

“We began flying again,” Jennifer recalls. The family returned to Seattle Children’s, where the recurrence was confirmed. “North had relapsed with a testicular leukemic tumor as well as a relapse of the bone marrow.”

North began a new chemotherapy regimen right away while his parents began looking at his options for continued medical care and learned that Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center was performing more un-related bone marrow transplants than anywhere else in the world.

Dr. Jean Sanders, member of the Hutchinson Center and a UW professor of pediatric hematology-oncology, decided the next step in North’s treatment should be a bone-marrow transplant.

During a national bone marrow search, a registered donor was found in Chicago. “She is our ‘angel,’” Jennifer says. On Nov. 13, 1996, when North was just eight years old, he received his new bone marrow cells. “As we hoped, the bone marrow transplant cured North of his leukemia,” says Jennifer. To this day, donor and recipient exchange holiday and birthday cards every year.

Not long after his transplant, North was introduced to a group of nurses who were taking a tour of the Hutchinson Center. He proudly told the group: “My name is North and I am a walking talking miracle,” Jennifer recalls fondly.

Where most families have photo albums filled with birthday parties and family fun times, the Aspelunds have photos of North in the hospital. “North grew up fast,” Jennifer says. “His best friends became his doctors and nurses.”

Because of his weakened immune system, North was unable to attend public school. But he and his sister Brooke were able to attend the Fred Hutch School during their time in Seattle for treatments.

Four years later, for reasons still not clear, North developed kidney cancer (stage III renal cell carcinoma) in his right kidney. His right kidney was removed in Feb. 2000.

“Dr. Sanders consulted with a leading (kidney cancer) expert,” Jennifer says, “and it was determined that North should begin a form of immune therapy to treat this cancer, which he received for nine months.”

Fast-forward to 2007 – 10 years post-transplant – and North is doing very well. Instead of spending time in treatment, North is learning to play the guitar. He was able to join public school several years ago and like most teenagers, loves to play video and computer games. During summer vacations he enjoys sports fishing with his dad in Anchorage and riding four-wheelers with his family and relatives. This June he’ll graduate from high school.

‘There is the occasional struggle with graft-versus-host disease,” Jennifer says, “and North has a few minor health problems that may likely be the result of so much chemotherapy treatment in his childhood.”  For this reason, North joined the ACCESS (After Cancer Care Ends Survivorship Starts) program at Children’s Hospital, which is a follow-up program for pediatric cancer patients to help insure their long-term health.

But, like many teens leaving high school, North’s next challenge fortunately isn’t health-related. It’s time now to figure out what he’s going to do with the rest of his life.