A career in biology didn’t pan out for Wally Yocum of Marietta, Ohio, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help to advance the field.
Yocum, a technical manager at the Marietta branch of RJF International Corp., has a biology degree from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey that he pursued partly because, he said, he “thought maybe I could help find a cure for something.”
Years later, he’s doing just that by participating in clinical trials for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) at the OSUCCC — James.
CLL, the most common form of chronic leukemia in the Western Hemisphere, is a currently incurable hematologic malignancy with which Yocum was diagnosed in August 2008. A regular blood donor for many years, he was surprised when a technician at the donor site told him his hemoglobin was too low for him to donate that month. He later saw a doctor who discovered that Yocum’s white blood cell count was very high.
“He called me on a Friday night and told me to go to the emergency room immediately,” Yocum recalled. The next day, a doctor at his local hospital, told him he had CLL, and he began 18 weeks of FCR chemotherapy (involving the drugs fludarabine, cyclophosphamide and rituximab).
This led to a partial remission, but when Yocum’s blood cell counts rose again in mid-2009, he was referred to John Byrd, MD, a CLL specialist and researcher at the OSUCCC – James.
After careful consideration, Yocum agreed to join a clinical trial involving the drug flavopiridol from July to September, and Yocum achieved a partial remission that lasted 15 months.
When Yocum’s blood cell counts started rising yet again, Dr. Byrd suggested another clinical trial that involved a promising new drug called ibrutinib. Thus far, he has had positive results and continues to have monthly visits to the OSUCCC — James for monitoring.
His hope is that the drug will keep working for him so he won’t need a stem cell transplant that could lead to serious complications.
He admits he was initially apprehensive about enrolling on clinical trials, but now he’s glad he did.
“Before the first trial, I’d read about possible side effects, and it was frightening to envision all those things,” he said. “But I wanted to do something that was medically beneficial because I knew I could no longer give blood. That thought process returned with the second trial, but once again I’m glad to be doing it.”
He considers himself lucky to be part of Dr. Byrd’s innovative studies.
“To get groundbreaking treatments by a world-renowned physician so close to home is wonderful. And there’s always the chance that ibrutinib could eventually become the first line of treatment for CLL,” Yocum said, adding that this therapy has had the fewest side effects and has been the least physically challenging of all his treatments.
Yocum’s cancer experience has gradually made him much more outspoken than he was at first about both his illness and the importance of taking part in clinical trials to help improve therapy.
“At first, I was secretive about it,” he said. “I was a healthy man in his mid-50s who had never been hospitalized, and I thought of myself as invincible. To find out I had CLL caused me to wonder what I had done wrong and how I could have avoided it. So I didn’t talk much about it.”
Now he’s much more open, speaking to groups about his experience, attending a major CLL conference and offering clinical trial testimonials.
“Since 2008, I’ve been in and out of treatment a few times, and it always involves a mental shifting of gears,” he said. “It helps to have a devoted caregiver like my wife, Marilyn, with me every step of the way — someone to hear what the doctors say, ask questions and talk things over with me. She has helped me immeasurably and been very supportive of my decision to participate in clinical trials.”
“I’m also doing this so that maybe someday others won’t have to go through it,” Yocum explained. “Maybe I can be part of a trial that leads to a cure, or at least to a better treatment. The number of people you can help by doing something like this is infinite.”