Drumming up donors
Perry Cheathem first began to notice symptoms in the summer of 2014.
He thought he had allergies.
“Hot weather made me itch, especially on my back,” the Grand Rapids, Michigan, resident said. “I tried a lot of different things. I went to the doctor and got allergy shots. I went to a dermatologist.”
But the symptoms persisted.
In August 2014, Perry ran a 10-mile race in Flint, Michigan.
“Every mile I got slower and slower and I wasn’t sweating,” he said. “The next couple of weeks, my legs swelled up really bad. My thighs swelled up.”
He visited the Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital emergency department.
At first doctors thought an infection had caused the symptoms, but a biopsy revealed the true culprit: cancer.
For Perry, then age 47 and a father of five children, the word rocked his world.
But the adjectives capsized it: Stage 4 T-cell lymphoma, a blood cancer.
“I have a young family,” said Perry, father of Neo, 7, Zander, 10, Zippora, 11, Neka, 14, and Zoe, 18. “Any time you say cancer stage 4 … I was pretty sad.”
He and his wife, Christine, learned that swollen lymph nodes had caused the swelling in his thighs.
“It was cutting off my blood circulation,” he said.
Because of my immune system… I was kind of shut down from a lot of things. I’m going to try to do some fishing with my kids this summer. We haven’t been able to do it for the last three years.
For Christine, his wife of almost 23 years, it only served as a deja vu she never wanted to repeat.
“She was in the hospital with me when the doctor came and told us,” Perry said. “Both of her parents passed away due to cancer. It’s a heavy burden for her right now. She’s very fearful. Her mom passed away two years prior to my diagnosis.”
Perry and Christine told the kids about their daddy’s diagnosis. They prayed for him every day. And every night.
Perry went through eight rounds of chemotherapy, but the cancer dragon continued to breathe fire.
On June 9, 2015, Perry underwent a stem cell transplant at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center Lettinga Inpatient Unit at Butterworth after undergoing more chemotherapy to kill his own immune system in preparation for the transplant.
He remained in the hospital for 45 days, then went to his parents’ house in Muskegon to recover.
“My wife and kids were sick and I couldn’t be around anybody who was sick because of my compromised immune system,” Perry said. “I spent another 30 days at my parents’ house.”
As he regained strength, he started walking a mile or two every day.
Eventually, he returned home. By November, he returned to his job as an inventory planner for an airline engine company.
And he started running again.
“I ran the Fifth Third River Bank Run 10K last year,” Perry said. “I just didn’t have enough for the 25K. I was too sick.”
Every good turn
Perry, now in remission, is still on anti-rejection medicines. He goes in every other month for blood tests.
So far, so good.
He hopes to hook up with another passion he’s been missing—fishing.
“Because of my immune system, I couldn’t do too much around water or worms,” he said. “I was kind of shut down from a lot of things. I’m going to try to do some fishing with my kids this summer. We haven’t been able to do it for the last three years.”
When you think of cancer, this is definitely a way to save lives. It’s actually twofold–you’re helping to save a life and you’re helping the family.
As he looks forward to life anew, Perry thinks fondly of his stem cell donor, who resides in Brooklyn, New York.
“She is of Dominican Republic background,” Perry said. “She was a 9 out of 10 match.”
Perry realizes it’s because of her that he’s able to now run 20 miles a week and work every day.
It’s also because of her, and what Perry has learned, that he’s on a mission. During his stem cell process, Perry learned that many cultures are slimly represented on the donor list. He’s now actively reaching out to people of all cultural backgrounds, encouraging them to sign up with Be the Match to become donors.
“I did my first booth at a church function,” Perry said. “I talked to about 200 people last Saturday. That is my goal, to try to build up the donor list. I plan to do a couple more events this summer.”
Perry aims to spread the word about the need for more races on the donor registry at a couple of local races.
“It’s good to share my experiences and see if I can get people to sign up to be stem cell donors,” Perry said. “It took them about 30 days to find a match for me. Some people aren’t that fortunate. They don’t have a match.”
Stem cell donors must match your DNA, which means they need to be family members or of the same cultural background.
“I didn’t know anything about this before I went through it,” Perry said. “It feels like a challenge to educate the minority groups. When you think of cancer, this is definitely a way to help save lives. It’s actually twofold—you’re helping to save a life and you’re helping the family.”
“He is unlikely to relapse at this point,” Dr. Al-Homsi said.
He also said he’s pleased with what Perry is doing to raise awareness about the need for more donors.
“Certain ethnic groups are less represented in the registry,” Dr. Al-Homsi said. “I appreciate what he has done.”