My name is Michelle, in 2010 I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful man named Brandon. We met online through a video game called World of Warcraft and were instant friends. Years later, we finally met in person when I took a trip to Victoria, British Columbia on a whim. We “dated” over skype and phone calls for months while Brandon was living in Victoria, BC and I was living in Austin, Texas. Finally, I decided to make the move to Canada to take a chance on a wonderful man who I was falling for more and more every day. In July 2014, I moved to Victoria and Brandon and I have been inseparable ever since.
Our lives changes forever on August 30th when Brandon went in for a routine blood test. He called me, in tears, and told me that he had been diagnosed with leukemia. The next 48 hours were a whirlwind as we traveled from Victoria to Vancouver so that Brandon could receive treatment at Vancouver General Hospital.
Brandon was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). AML is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. The term ‘acute’ denotes the rapid progression of the disease. It’s called myeloid leukemia because it affects a lineage of white blood cells called myeloid cells. AML leads to the rapid production of dysfunctional white blood cells that crowd out other healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.
When Brandon was diagnosed with AML, his white blood cell count was 45×10^9 cells per liter of blood (the normal range of white blood cells is between 4×10^9 and 11×10^9 cells per liter of blood). Within the few days before he started chemotherapy, his white blood cell count had risen to nearly 60×10^9 cells per liter of blood. His initial bone marrow biopsy verified his AML diagnosis and showed that 90%+ of the stem cells in his bone marrow were cancerous.
Brandon’s first round of chemotherapy, called 7+3 (7 days of a drug called cytarabine and 3 days of a drug called daunorubicin), only reduced the cancer in his bone marrow to 40%. This regimen of chemotherapy puts 75% of leukemia patients into remission, but we were not so lucky. We had high hopes for the second protocol of treatment.
Brandon kept his spirits up and pushed directly into a second round of chemotherapy, called ‘salvage chemotherapy.’ This more intensive chemotherapy is supposed to wipe out any remaining cancer cells at a high cost to the patient. Brandon became very ill, as his immune system as a whole was wiped out from the treatment. His white blood cell counts dropped to zero, leaving him highly vulnerable to infection, and he received red blood cell and platelet transfusions every few days. Brandon was in incredible pain, due to the weakening of his body from the chemotherapy.
We anxiously waited and watched for a month to learn if the salvage chemotherapy had worked. The doctors kept telling us that his blood counts would eventually recover, but as the weeks went by things were not looking up. His third bone marrow biopsy showed that his cancer had fought back up to 56%. We were devastated. Because the cancer count in his bone marrow was so high, it was preventing the growth of healthy blood cells in his body. Brandon was left with no immune system, no ability to fight infection, and limited ability to clot blood and transport oxygen throughout his body. Brandon and I got this news the day before our wedding on October 18, 2015.
After nearly 2 months in the hospital, Brandon was released so that we could enjoy our wedding at his mother’s home. Brandon struggled through the day feeling sick, tired, and nauseous, but kept a smile on his face the whole time. We put all sadness aside to enjoy a weekend in celebration of our love surrounded by our family and friends. It was truly the most beautiful day of our lives. Emotions ran high as we promised to love, cherish, and support one another forever. Never before had those words meant so much.
fter the failure of his first and second rounds of chemotherapy, his doctors did not have hope in other chemotherapy treatments. Brandon and I were told that chemotherapy would not likely work, since his leukemia was showing resistance to the strongest chemotherapy medications.
Under the umbrella of AML, certain genetic mutations place you in various risk groups for relapse. We learned that Brandon’s specific cancerous mutation, called FTL3-ITD, placed him in the highest risk group. Without a bone marrow transplant, Brandon’s chance for a cancer free life would be extremely small. Unfortunately, a patient needs to be in remission (cancer less than 5%) to receive a bone marrow transplant. Getting him into remission was proving to be the hardest part. We had nothing left but to try enrolling Brandon in a clinical drug trial.
Brandon’s doctors informed us of a new drug that was conducting a phase III clinical trial at Vancouver General Hospital. The drug was an FTL3 inhibitor, which was designed to damage only the cancerous cells in his body. We were thrilled to learn about this new treatment that could put him into remission. On October 27, 2015, Brandon beat the odds and was randomized to be one of the 2/3 of patients to receive the medication. We were over the moon!
The medication looked very promising; with Brandon’s subsequent monthly biopsies showing bone marrow cancer counts of 31% and 9%, respectively. We thought that surely his next biopsy would give us the remission we had been waiting for. Brandon’s doctors were so confident, that they started to schedule his stem cell transplant for mid February 2016. We were excited to learn that Brandon had 3 possible donors!
We were confident and excited as Brandon went in for his 7th bone marrow biopsy on January 19, 2016. We were crushed to learn that his bone marrow cancer count had increased from 9% to 20% over the last month. While this was not the news we were expecting, we were hopeful that the next highest dose of the trial drug would do the trick. On January 20th, his doctors increased his medication dose to the highest possible dose of 60mg. Brandon’s bone marrow transplant was delayed to mid March in hopes that the medication would work its magic.
Unfortunately, a week and a half later, on January 29, 2016, we learned that the medication was not working. Increasing numbers of cancerous blast cells had begun to show in Brandon’s blood, which lead doctors to believe that the leukemia was continuing to flourish in his bone marrow. Furthermore, the highest dose of the medication was starting to show toxic effects on Brandon’s liver. With heavy hearts, Brandon’s doctors were forced to remove him from the drug trial.
On January 29, 2016, we had the difficult conversation with his doctors as they told us there were no available treatment options left in Canada. Vancouver General Hospital is one of the leading leukemia treatment centers in Canada, and they had tried everything they had available to help Brandon. All they could offer, was comfort care to ease the side effects as the cancer grew and eventually took Brandon’s life.
Brandon and I were not ready to quit. We chose to seek treatment at the best cancer hospital in the United States, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Since Brandon is not an American citizen, the cost for treatment in the United States was astronomical. With the love and support of our family and friends, we launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Brandon’s treatment. Thanks to the kindness of our community, we had raised the money for Brandon’s consultation ($37,000 USD) within days.
On February 8th, 2016 we traveled to MD Anderson. After a weeklong consultation with a team of doctors at MD Anderson Brandon was enrolled in a second clinical trial. Brandon started his new treatment at MD Anderson on February 22nd, 2016.
After a month on the new treatment it became apparent that the treatment was no longer working to control Brandon’s leukemia. His white blood cell counts soared and he was admitted back into the hospital. A bone marrow biopsy showed that his blast (cancer) count in his bone marrow had soared back up to 68%. We were absolutely devastated. We didn’t know what other options existed.
A week later, we learned of another clinical trial that was showing promise in patients like Brandon. The doctors were hopeful and enrolled Brandon into his third clinical trial. The first month was extremely difficult as the treatment side effects left Brandon bed ridden and extremely ill. Furthermore, the treatment was slow working so we were unaware of its effect on his leukemia. After one month on the treatment, we were amazed to learn that his blast (cancer) count was down to 22%!
On May 20th, 2016, after two months on his third clinical trial (and 11 bone marrow biopsies), we learned that Brandon was in remission with a blast count of 2%!
We are currently in preparation for Brandon’s bone marrow transplant. Without a transplant, his extremely aggressive leukemia will likely relapse. Although it is an extremely risky procedure, a transplant gives Brandon a chance for a new immune system and a new life after leukemia.
Anyone who knows Brandon knows what a joy and light he is to the world. He is the most compassionate, generous, and contagiously funny guy I know. He has the ability to light up the room and make everyone around him laugh and smile. He also has an incredible positivity and strength that comes from within. Throughout this journey, he has never complained or been angry at his diagnosis. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard him say, “Other people have it worse, I’m the lucky one.” He has continued to fight leukemia with a smile on his face and love in his heart.
Brandon is also my best friend, my husband, my soul mate, and my life-long love. I can’t imagine a world without him in it. I will never give up on a healing miracle, or on the hope that there is a treatment out there that can cure his leukemia. We made our wedding vows on October 18, 2015, and those vows will carry on forever. I will always be there to love, support, cherish, and fight for him; whether it be in his fight against leukemia or anything else that life throws our way. I will never give up on him.