At 18 years old, leukemia drastically changed his life

Tom Shuford
When Tom Shuford was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, more than 30 years ago, his doctors told him there was no hope for long-term survival. Then he found his way to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Photos courtesy Tom Shuford

I grew up in the Bible Belt of North Carolina. At 18, I had started attending college and thought I had my life all planned out, but God was about to show me a different set of plans. Less than two months later, I discovered something that would drastically change my life, forever.

One cold, September morning, I rushed to make it to my first class. The professor turned off the lights and began to show us a film. Several minutes into the flick, the room began to spin like a violent tornado. I was barely able to raise my hand to signal for help. But before help arrived, the room went black. When I woke up, I was outside the classroom in the hall, lying on the floor.

There was another student with me who had been an emergency medical technician. He said he would wait there with me until someone from the school’s infirmary arrived. After I arrived at the infirmary, blood was drawn. I met the doctor, and he told me he saw some things he didn’t like. But he said they were limited on what tests they could do. So they would send me to the nearby county hospital. The local hospital did more blood tests and some other procedures. Once I was returned to the infirmary, the doctor told me he had some bad news. With a burdened look on his face, he said, “You have leukemia.”

I was devastated! Here I was, only eighteen years old. My adult life had barely gotten started. He said that he had scheduled me at a hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for tests that would tell me the type of leukemia that I had and the options I had to treat it. The thought went through my mind: “How long do I have to live?”

Within a few hours, I was admitted to the hospital in Winston-Salem and given a room on the cancer floor. I remember feeling so hopeless and so helpless. There seemed to be nothing I could do. My family and I cried and shared hugs. I do remember crying out to God, asking Him for His guidance and direction. A peace came over me, and I knew everything would be ok. Finally, another doctor came by my room. He was the pediatric oncologist at the hospital and said that he had scheduled more tests for me. Lab technicians came to my room. They said, “We’re here to do a bone marrow aspiration.” The procedure only lasted minutes, but to me it seemed as if it would never end!

The next day, the doctor stopped by my room again to deliver some mortifying news. As my family and I listened intently, he began to explain the type of leukemia I had. It was called chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML. He explained some of the effects the disease would have on me. The words that came out of his mouth left a devastating image of a hurricane’s aftermath. I could have never been prepared for what he said next, though. He said, “You only have three years to live. No matter what you do, you have no hope!”

Wow! Those words blew me out of the water. I seemingly had my whole life in front of me, but now it looked as if it would end too soon.

My dad learned about Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. But in order to be a candidate for a bone marrow transplant, I would need a bone marrow match and at least $100,000. To put it into perspective, $100,000 in 1984, with the increase of inflation, would be nearly a quarter of a million dollars today. That seemed impossible. But I knew if it was God’s will, Jesus would make it possible!

In those days, there was no National Bone Marrow Registry, no Red Cross bone marrow drives or regional bone marrow banks. The best chance I had for a match would come from a sibling, but I only had one. My brother was only 11 years old at that time. When his marrow was typed, he wasn’t a mismatch ― he was a perfect match! That is so amazing, especially in those days. Over 32 years later, with technology and millions of donors listed on a registry, the chances of survival are still very slim.* It would have been like finding a needle in a haystack back then.

In order to acquire the money, newspaper articles were written, fundraisers were held, and a “Keep Tommy Singing” fund was created. Even a well-known celebrity was brought in to raise needed funds. Although the situation had the odds stacked against me, I remembered I had given God control of my life. He directed my path to Fred Hutch.

When I arrived at the hospital I was admitted the very next day. While I was in Seattle, I experienced many battles. Among them, I was totally paralyzed, my lungs collapsed and I was on a ventilator. The things that I experienced are not common, but I feel that’s why the Lord sent me to Fred Hutch. He knew I would be in a place where they could take care of me!

After my initial time in Seattle, I would return for yearly checkups. I’ll always remember the year that Dr. Mary Flowers [of Fred Hutch] told me I was cured! More than 30 years later, I am cured, walking and talking. Thank you Fred Hutch!

*Editor’s note: Since 2001, the first-line treatment for most cases of CML is a targeted drug therapy. According to the American Cancer Society, most CML patients treated with such drugs are still alive today. Among CML patients who do receive a transplant, current survival rates vary by disease phase and donor type.

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