As a Taekwondo instructor, Jason Carter is a master at kicking things.
In a series of spins, jumps and leg swings, Carter aims for his target and strikes, exhaling at the moment of impact.
But last year, seemingly out of nowhere, a fierce target arose that threatened his very existence. No soft-strike sparring here—this was gut-wrenching fight-for-your-life real.
He kicked, he punched, he mustered every form of self-defense he knew, but leukemia struck harder.
So it begins
The match began in August of 2014, when on a fluke, Carter learned he had a particularly aggressive type of the blood cancer. Carter had been trimming bushes in his Ludington, Michigan, yard when he stepped inside for a drink of water.
“It felt like somebody kicked me (in the abdomen) harder than anything,” said Carter, now 46. “I was drinking a glass of water and I dropped the glass. I fell to the floor. The pain was so bad I thought I was dying. I’ve been injured before, but never anything like this.”
Carter crawled back outside and called for a neighbor to help.
Doctors at Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital determined a kidney stone caused the intense pain, but blood tests showed another potential enemy lurking in his bloodstream.
“Something was off with my white blood cell count,” Carter said. “When they came back, they said they couldn’t do anything about the kidney stone right now. I was like, ‘What? Excuse me?'”
They needed Carter to first meet with Carol Peterson, MD, a Spectrum Health Ludington cancer and hematology specialist. She assessed the risk of Carter bleeding during kidney stone removal and determined doctors could proceed with the kidney stone removal. Carter and his kidney stone parted ways in a September procedure.
“When I was in the hospital she said it could be leukemia,” Carter recalled. “But there was still a chance it wasn’t going to be. I was in denial. I wanted to think it was something else.”
But on Sept. 17 of last year, the hardest punch of all landed—acute myeloid leukemia—a cancer in which the body produces too many immature white blood cells. The reality knocked the wind out of him.
“Dr. Peterson told me she had never seen numbers like this before,” Carter said.
‘Didn’t recognize myself’
“They figured it was in the early enough stages,” Carter said. “They wanted to jump on it right away.”
Carter went through several rounds of chemotherapy at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, where he stayed from October through much of December, receiving chemo sometimes as frequently as 24/7.
The single father said his daughter, Andee, then 13, a three-time state champion in Taekwondo sparring and national bronze medalist in the sport, provided inspiration during his cancer treatments.
“She was home and training extra hard to do a tournament last November,” Carter said. “Knowing she was working hard at that actually helped me.”
By mid-November, bone marrow tests showed no signs of leukemia, but the enemy had landed its punches. Carter, who is 6-foot-1 with a normal weight of 196 pounds, had shriveled to 146 pounds.
“I’d look in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself,” Carter said. “I was a greenish tint. It was like I was looking at a 90-year-old alien. I wondered, ‘Am I ever going to look like me again?'”
Leukemia and chemotherapy had waged war in his body, and he’d weakened.
After being discharged from the hospital three days before Christmas, Carter spent the holiday with his daughter at home, then months recovering on the couch.
‘Guaranteed to repeat’
Then another kick in the gut—genetic tests ordered by Dr. Brinker painted a bleak outlook, indicating Carter’s chances of the cancer reoccurring charted extremely high.
“The way my genetic marker is, my leukemia is almost guaranteed to come back,” Carter said. “Dr. Brinker said he doesn’t know if it will be six days, six weeks, six months or six years, but with all the studies and knowledge, it’s guaranteed to repeat.”
Dr. Brinker referred Carter to Spectrum Health Cancer Center bone marrow specialist Ahmad Samer Al-Homsi, MD.
As Carter slowly regained strength, he prepared for his next challenge—a bone marrow transplant.
But any bone marrow transplant requires a suitable donor. Both of Carter’s brothers volunteered. Although siblings only have a 25 percent chance of being a match, both turned out to be suitable donors—which has a 6.25 percent chance of happening. His brother, Todd, aligned most closely.
“It really chokes you up that they were willing to do that,” said Carter, who endured additional chemotherapy treatments to kill off his own disease-ravaged bone marrow.
On March 11, Dr. Al-Homsi implanted Todd’s bone marrow stem cells in Carter’s body. Carter had to wear a mask and gloves out in public for a couple of months to help protect his immune system. His blood type changed in the process, from his A-negative to Todd’s A-positive.
Dr. Al-Homsi said the two-year survival rate for this type of leukemia is 40-60 percent.
“The fact that most serious complications and relapses occur during the first years makes his chances better at this stage,” Dr. Al-Homsi said. “Jason is fortunate to have come this far with virtually no complications and to remain disease-free.”
‘I didn’t let it get me’
And now, more than 250 days after transplant, Carter is feeling like his old self.
On a recent Monday evening, shortly after the sun set behind the Ludington pier, he practiced Taekwondo at the Freedom Martial Arts studio.
Standing on red and blue mats and wearing white pants, a black top and a second-degree black belt, he bowed to student John Brooks then practiced two-person fighting form, a series of arm and hand slaps.
Carter later slapped high leg kicks against a practice dummy’s head, spinning, jabbing and striking.
“I couldn’t do this at this time last year,” Carter said. “I still have some strength and stamina issues, but it’s almost like I feel better now than even before I knew I had leukemia.”
He didn’t realize it at the time, but in hindsight, he sees some things that were probably symptoms of the enemy lurking within.
When he sparred at the studio with head gear on, he would overheat quickly. He also couldn’t catch his breath and felt air-starved, and tired.
“I sparred for the first time yesterday and I put the gear on and I’m not warm,” Carter said. “Now when I work out I get tired in a different way. I don’t feel like I can’t get my breath. Before it was like I was getting no air.”
Carter has some advice for anyone else suffering from cancer.
“Keep moving,” he said. “It’s no joke when they are telling everyone in the hospital to get up and asking ‘did you walk today?’ I didn’t walk as much during that first stay in the hospital and I think that’s why it was so much rougher.”
After his bone marrow-killing chemotherapy round, he walked 7 miles in the hospital hallways and practiced Taekwondo in his room. He healed quickly.
The whole experience has left Carter’s mind spinning, but he’s proud that he kicked the leukemia.
“I’m proud of myself that I didn’t let it get me,” he said. “If I can do that, there’s nothing I won’t be able to do.”