Patient Stories

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Survivor

Oktar Babuna

  • Diagnosed with leukemia
  • Treated with mini bone marrow transplant that failed
  • Traveled to SCCA from Turkey for full bone marrow transplant 

Oktar Babuna is a neurosurgeon from Turkey who came to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance in 2001 for a bone marrow transplant –- his second transplant actually – to treat his leukemia.

Oktar’s first transplant was a mini-transplant, which is like a conventional transplant except that less chemotherapy and radiation is used before transplanting stem cells. This type of transplant is effective in some cases, without all the side effects of a conventional transplant. But in Oktar’s case, it failed.

Rather than return to the hospital where he’d been initially treated, Oktar chose Seattle Cancer Care Alliance because of its reputation and the expertise of its doctors, who are faculty members of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

"I went to an excellent cancer hospital initially," Oktar says. "But this place (SCCA) is better in terms of transplants. They do more (transplants) than any place in the world. I found out that Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is the most experienced donor transplant center and they do more transplants than other cancer centers, so I came here. And I'm glad I did."

Oktar says that the care he received from physicians, nurses, and staff, including attending to his needs as an international patient, was "perfect." He says, compared to other U.S. medical centers where he has trained or received treatment, the SCCA staff "are extremely well-organized and extremely professional, a very tight group."

Oktar, who is also a doctor by profession, did his medical training at New York University. He was working in Turkey when he became ill. He went back to New York to consult with colleagues, who diagnosed chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. He had two cycles of chemotherapy in New York and then returned to Turkey.

But his condition worsened and in Turkey he was diagnosed with Richter's syndrome, the transformation of CLL to diffuse large cell lymphoma. Richter's syndrome, which occurs in 4 to 5 percent of patients with CLL, has a median survival of only six months. "It's a very fatal cancer," Oktar says.

He then sought treatment at a well-known, very large cancer center in the United States where he underwent chemotherapy and was told he needed a bone marrow transplant.

No one in his family--which includes four sisters--was a close enough match for the transplant, so his family and friends began a well-publicized search for a donor in Turkey. By the time it was over, 160,000 people had been tested--Oktar says people gathered at stadiums, as many as 6,000 people at a time, to give blood samples. But still no match was found. "It was the largest campaign in the world," he says. "I was in the media every day."

The chemotherapy kept Oktar’s disease in check until a recurrence the following year. He went back to the United States for more chemotherapy and then had a mini-transplant (a procedure he chose because it has less morbidity and mortality than a regular transplant) in December 2000. But then the following February, the transplant failed.

It was at that point he decided to come to SCCA, where he had a second transplant in May 2001.

Oktar spent a year and a half in Seattle. Most people with his cancer only live six months, at the most, he says, and don't have the time to consider a transplant before they are too sick to have one. "It looks like it worked this time," he says with a laugh, and adds that he feels very fortunate.