Cancer Picked the Wrong Dude
Dec 03, 2018 Cedars-Sinai Staff
"Cancer picked the wrong dude," says leukemia survivor Caleb Hinson about his journey over the last year.
In October 2017, Caleb went from being an otherwise healthy 35-year-old to someone in desperate need of medical attention.
He suddenly had strange symptoms. He couldn’t tell what was wrong, but he was experiencing swelling and muscle fatigue.
A week later he woke up feeling hungover. As the day progressed, so did his symptoms. He had a fever and felt dehydrated.
After leaving both an urgent care and an emergency room without answers, he came to the Cedars-Sinai emergency room. One by one, possible culprits were investigated and ruled out.
Finally, doctors arrived at a diagnosis—acute myeloid leukemia.
Treating the disease
"I had heard of leukemia, but I didn’t know anything about it," says Caleb. "My first thought was 'OK, what's the game plan?'"
"I knew that he was the kind of doctor I needed in my corner if I was going to get through this. I knew we were going to fight this together."
Caleb met with Dr. Noah Merin, a physician in the Cedars-Sinai Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program. Caleb was put at ease after their first conversation.
"I liked Dr. Merin right away, and I knew that he was the kind of doctor I needed in my corner if I was going to get through this," says Caleb. "I knew we were going to fight this together."
Caleb immediately underwent 2 rounds of induction chemotherapy, an intensive 7-day course of chemotherapy aimed at getting rid of as many cancer cells as possible.
"I was in good shape before I got sick, so I was fortunate enough to be able to tolerate the really tough chemo," says Caleb. "My body was able to go through 2 rounds, and I left the hospital in remission."
To increase Caleb's chances of staying cancer-free, Dr. Merin recommended a bone marrow transplant.
Caleb was matched with a donor from Be the Match and had his transplant on March 20, 2018.
"What's incredible about this treatment is that Caleb walked out of the hospital without having to suppress his immune system, which is huge for patients with his condition."
Typically, after a bone marrow transplant, patients take immuno-suppression medication for months to lower the risk of rejection.
But Dr. Merin proposed a new technique that is only available at a few hospitals in the US: Following the transplant, patients are given a large dose of chemo instead of immuno-suppression drugs.
The goal, according to Dr. Merin, is to avoid trading one illness for another. The chemo helps to eliminate cells that may cause graph-versus-host disease (GVHD), a serious and common complication of bone marrow transplants, while preserving the cells needed for immunity from infections.
Read: Bone Marrow Transplant Saves a Life, Starts a New Friendship
"What's incredible about this treatment is that Caleb walked out of the hospital without having to suppress his immune system, which is huge for patients with his condition," says Dr. Merin. "We really wanted to give Caleb the best shot at returning to his normal, healthy life as quickly as possible."
A second chance at living
The 100-day post-transplant countdown is the crucial time period when complications are most common—and patients are advised to take it easy while their bodies recuperate.
In the Newsroom: Doctor Runs Toward His 100th Marathon
But as a lifelong runner, Caleb was antsy to get back to his normal routine. Within a few weeks, he was going to the gym.
Around day 50 post-transplant, he decided to come clean to Dr. Merin about his exercise habits.
"He was concerned, but then he asked me what my mile time was," Caleb remembers with a laugh.
"He encouraged me to be as active as I could tolerate, but also give myself time to recover properly."
Dr. Merin gave Caleb the green light to train for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) Half Marathon and even joined him on a few training runs.
Read: Photographing the Path Through Cancer
In September, Caleb completed the half marathon—just 6 months after his transplant.
Now he's given himself a new challenge: make a difference in the lives of others. He's devoted himself to raising money for blood cancer research, and he's in the running for the 2019 LLS "Man of the Year" award for his efforts.
"I got way more out of this than just surviving. My outlook on life is completely different," says Caleb. "I want to continue to use the gifts I have to make a positive impact on other people."