Tom Robinson considered himself a healthy 64-year-old when, in August 2012, he went in for his annual physical examination.
The next day, Tom’s doctor called to say that the blood tests showed Tom was anemic. Tom and his doctor both believed the results must have been a mistake. To be sure, Tom took another blood test a few days later.
The blood tests did, in fact, flag a serious illness. Within days, Tom was in a local hospital’s ICU isolation room, digesting the devastating news: Tom had acute leukemia. The prognosis, the hematologist told him, was grave.
His white blood cell count, critical to warding off infections, was at near zero, and the cancer cells in his blood were, according to his doctor, growing out of control.
The doctors advised Tom to get his “affairs in order right away.” They also arranged for him to be transferred to the OSUCCC – James acute leukemia unit as soon as a bed became available. In the meantime, an OSUCCCC – James leukemia specialist, Alison Walker, MD, worked closely with the local hospital staff to coordinate Tom’s care until the hospital could transfer him. “She told them exactly what to do, exactly what to give me,” Tom said.
A few days after receiving the initial blood test results, Tom was admitted to the OSUCCC – James. His treatment team immediately began tests to pinpoint his type of leukemia. “I wasn’t in the room 15 minutes,” he said, “before they started the bone marrow biopsy.”
The analyses revealed that Tom had acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), a subtype of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The cancer of the blood-forming tissue in the bone marrow causes immature white blood cells called promyelocytes to form, leading to a shortage of both red blood cells and infection-fighting white blood cells.
“My marrow was 93 percent cancer,” he said. His blood was essentially circulating the cancer cells.
A friend of Tom’s and his wife’s happened to know Dr. Michael Caligiuri, the director of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and the CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. Dr. Caligiuri stopped by to see Tom at the hospital and informed him that “the most knowledgeable person in the world in APL was next door in the lab.”
Within about 20 minutes, the OSUCCC—James had rotated doctors for Tom’s inpatient stay to that APL expert: Dr. Guido Marcucci.
As a leading researcher on AML Dr. Marcucci analyzed the genetic makeup — the DNA — of Tom’s cancer cells to design a targeted treatment specific to his disease. “That’s why the results are so incredible,” Tom said.
Tom received aggressive chemotherapy and, later, arsenic therapy. His primary treatment was with all-trans retinoic acid. Tom said it’s the same acid in vitamin A that’s used to treat acne, only his dose was much higher. He took the capsules for more than two months.
Tom emerged from his specialized treatment cancer-free and feeling great, considering the gravity of his health just a few months earlier. He visits his hematology oncologist, Dr. Walker, quarterly for checkups. His only side effect is a little numbness in his feet.
Tom credits the science, especially the role of genetic analysis in identifying and targeting cancers, as well as his team at the OSUCCC – James, which, he said, was amazing. “I had a team of 23 specialists looking after me,” he added.
Tom stressed that everyone on the team — not just the specialists — was attentive. “The nurses, orderlies, aides, people who took vitals, all were on top of their game,” he said. “They knew what they were doing and they were nice people.”
He added, “I did not find a single person who acted like they were there for a paycheck. Everybody looked like they were there for a purpose.”