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Stem cell transplant saves cyclist's life

The will to fight helped Kevin Penn beat leukemia
March 27, 2014

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Kevin Penn celebrated his 43rd birthday six years after his leukemia diagnosis and five years after his stem cell transplant.

An avid cyclist, Kevin says stubbornly ignored his noticeable fatigue, increasingly common illnesses, and even shortness of breath. Then one day while riding his bike in the park, “all decked out in my Lycra getup, on my titanium bike,” another biker pedaled past him up a hill, equipped with little more than jean shorts, tennis shoes, and a clunky bike. “My ego couldn’t handle it,” Penn says. He knew something had to be wrong.

The journey begins
Penn went to his doctor in late May 2008. Less than 48 hours later, he was at the Duke Cancer Center, being prepared for chemotherapy to treat acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a cancer that develops in the marrow of the bones. Penn, a self-described numbers man, was facing difficult odds: only one in five AML patients lives five years after diagnosis.

Penn completed his therapy successfully and went back to work. Then, six months later, his leukemia was back, and this time it was more severe. His only treatment option was a stem cell transplant.

The human diagnosis
Penn’s transplanted stem cells came from his brother. And the transplant worked—within a short period of time, his numbers were looking good, and medically everything was going well.

That’s when one of the most critical points in his treatment came about, says Penn. The rigors of preparing for and undergoing a stem cell transplant had finally sent him into a psychological skid. “I quit fighting,” he says. His care team knew it, and a nurse pulled his wife, Kristin, aside and said that if he didn’t get himself out of that bed, he never would. Kristin pushed him to fight again. “She simply willed me to do it. And that’s really when my healing process began. I will spend the rest of my life making sure Kristin knows how much I appreciate what she did for me, and also how much I love her. But without the Duke team and that nurse diagnosing my depression and giving my wife that push, I’m not sure what would have happened.”

The numbers and the innumerable
Kevin celebrated his 43rd birthday six years after diagnosis and five years after his stem cell transplant. He returned to his life in every way: taking part in several long-distance rides, and helping his two sons ride their bikes without training wheels. He knows the odds are in his favor to see many more wedding anniversaries, birthdays, and milestones for years to come.

Learn more about treating leukemia at Duke

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