Doug Ferrin sat on his orange BMW 650 cc motorcycle outside his Zeeland, Michigan, home on a recent weekday. He revved the throttle, feeling blessed to have finally outrun cancer and put it in his rear-view mirror.
It’s been a long road for Doug.
In 2007, Doug’s normally healthy body started failing him. He felt more tired than usual.
“I was having a lot of fatigue, aching and bruising,” said the now 61-year-old.
The diagnosis wasn’t on his road map and didn’t fit neatly in his saddlebags—chronic myeloid leukemia, a slow-spreading cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow.
He spent two weeks in Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital where doctors started him on a medication called Gleevec.
“It didn’t cure it or anything, but it kept it in check,” Doug said. “Exactly seven years later, my leukemia went into blast crisis.”
“Blast” most certainly does not equate to a fun time in this case. During the chronic phase of the disease, the blood and bone marrow contain less than 10 percent blasts (immature white blood cells). During a blast phase, the immature white blood cell population in blood or bone marrow blasts to 20 percent or more.
Like a steep downhill run with no bottom in sight, the blast crisis hit in February 2014 when Doug and Mary were on a cross-country ski jaunt. While skate-skiing, Doug started gasping for air.
“He was getting really tired and couldn’t catch his breath,” Mary recalled.
Doug consulted with Spectrum Health hematologist Amy VanderWoude, MD. Blood work confirmed the blast crisis and she admitted Doug to Butterworth Hospital, where he underwent five rounds of chemotherapy for a week straight.
“Dr. VanderWoude warned us to expect a fever in four days and to bring him back to the ER,” Mary said. “That’s what we did from February to July of 2014. There were a few times we didn’t think he would make it.”
Her husband of almost 30 years suddenly looked like a man much older than his years as the disease chipped away at his body.
“He looked like he was 80 years old,” Mary said.
Doug chimed in: “I felt like 100.”
If it was my time, it was my time. …My biggest concern was leaving my wife and family. That was my biggest worry.
Stephanie Williams, MD, division chief of the adult blood and bone marrow transplant program at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center, told Doug he faced two options at that time—do nothing, which likely carried a death sentence in six months, or undergo a stem cell transplant.
It was an easy choice, but unfortunately, not as easily done.
None of Doug’s relatives provided a suitable match. The news got worse. There was no match on the donor registry.
“Our preference is a matched sibling donor, then next (choice), a matched unrelated donor,” Dr. Williams said. “That he didn’t have a match was unusual in a Caucasian.”
One choice remained—stem cells from cord blood.
A suitable cord blood donor match turned up in France.
“Doug was pretty fortunate,” Dr. Williams said. “It is important for people to store cord blood from their babies. It’s usually just discarded. It’s a very important source of retrieving stem cells. The stem cells are more primitive so it takes a little longer for the patient to recover, but there’s less chance of graft versus host disease.”
In preparation for the transplant, Doug underwent chemotherapy and full-body radiation to kill off his own blood cells and bone marrow.
He spent a month in the hospital after the August 15, 2014, procedure as doctors monitored for potential graft-versus-host disease, which occurs when donor cells attack the recipient’s body.
Fortunately, Doug tolerated the transplant well, despite dropping from 185 to 130 pounds.
“I was so weak,” he said. “It was unbelievable how much strength, stamina and everything you lose. After the chemo treatment and one week prior to the transplant, when they did the full-body radiation, I was unbelievably weak. It was all I could do to get up and go to the bathroom or take a shower. It felt like I had run a marathon.”
Doug spent a month in the hospital, then returned three times a week for blood and platelet infusions and Mary administered magnesium at home through his port.
‘Places you never usually go’
Six months later, he returned to work part-time as a journeyman tool and die maker.
“I’m completely back to normal,” he said. “I still have fatigue. I now work nine hours a day, but I get very tired. I don’t have the stamina I used to have.”
But things are trending in the right direction. He’s back up to 180 pounds.
“I really don’t have too many other side effects,” he said. “I’ve been very, very lucky.”
His first stroke of luck? Receiving an umbilical cord blood match from a country an ocean away.
“I wish more people knew about donating the umbilical cord when they give birth,” Doug said. “They can take the cord blood and store this for other people. If more people did that, more patients would be able to go through the same procedure I did.”
Doug is now leukemia-free, back to cruising on his motorcycle, riding bikes and kayaking.
But no matter what paths he takes, he remembers the road he could have traveled, without the cord blood transplant.
“I’m not a real religious person, but I feel if it was my time, it was my time,” he said. “I’m not the type of person to cry about it or get all upset. If it wouldn’t have worked out, I was OK with that. My biggest concern was leaving my wife and family. That was my biggest worry.”
If all continues as it has, the only time he’ll be leaving his family is for a motorcycle trip to the Upper Peninsula, entertainment he loved before leukemia throttled him down.
“A bunch of us get together and we go way up in the U.P. on the back roads everywhere, places you never usually go,” Doug said.
Kind of like the other place a lot of people never usually go—staring death in the face while battling cancer.
“I appreciate things a lot more now,” Doug said. “I appreciate my wife and family, being around them, seeing them a lot more. I thought about that quite a bit—what it would be like if I had not done the transplant. It makes you realize how short life can be. And how precious life is.”