Active AML Patient Gets Back on the Road After Transplants

A Surprise Diagnosis
Bill Jehling, leukemia survivor and co-captain of Team Leukemia for Pedal the Cause.
Bill Jehling

Bill Jehling, 59, has always led an active lifestyle, sometimes running up to five miles every day. Every March, like clockwork, he would get an annual physical exam, and always had good results. He appeared to be in perfect health.

In 2008, Bill went in for his physical, expecting it to be a routine check-up. But when blood work revealed a low white blood cell count, his doctor suspected he might have leukemia. After a bone marrow biopsy, it was confirmed; Bill was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a form of cancer in which the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells, red blood cells or platelets. He was referred to Amanda Cashen, MD, a Washington University medical oncologist at Siteman Cancer Center, and began treatment immediately.

“I was stunned by the diagnosis; it came out of the blue. But I knew Siteman’s outstanding reputation. I knew I was in good hands,” says Bill.

Due to the intensive nature of his treatments, Bill was hospitalized at Siteman Cancer Center during his chemotherapy. After a month, he returned home in preparation for a stem cell transplant. That June, Bill underwent an autologous transplant, a procedure where the patient’s own stem cells are removed, stored while the patient undergoes treatment, and then given back to them. The transplant was successful. But unfortunately, Bill relapsed 20 months later, in March 2010. He underwent another stem cell transplant, this time receiving stem cells from his brother, a full-match donor.

Hope Throughout Treatment

Bill remained disciplined throughout his treatment. While in the hospital, he walked a mile every morning and every afternoon – 13 laps around the floor.  Every day, he got up, showered, shaved, exercised, made his bed, and set up an office in his hospital room. He was always willing to go down the hall and give other patients having a tough time a pep talk. Bill was so active that sometimes his doctors would walk in the room and jokingly ask him, “where is the patient?”

But treatment was not always easy for Bill. He experienced side effects from the chemotherapy, that included rigors, chills and high fever. He also experienced minor symptoms of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a condition that can occur when cells from a donor stem cell transplant attack the normal tissue of the patient. Fortunately, his physicians were able to treat the symptoms, allowing Bill to make a complete recovery.

Bill believes success stories should be shared. “It’s important for other patients to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “You can relax, to an extent, knowing that you are in the best possible place in the world for leukemia treatment. If you’re going to get cured, this is the place. You have a high likelihood of being okay because of Siteman.”

Throughout his treatment, Bill kept a binder of every piece of information he received – diagnosis papers, progress markers, information on his chemotherapy drugs and their side effects, every correspondence. On the cover were the words “Keeping the Faith.” Bill was amazed by the support and caregiving he received at Siteman Cancer Center. “It’s incredible how well they keep you informed. They were helpful and comforting. I went through the bad stuff, but Siteman made sure I knew what to expect – which made going through it much easier.”

Things happen in life you can’t control, and cancer doesn’t discriminate healthy or unhealthy,” says Bill. “But I am blessed to be here. My cancer journey has shaped who I am today and I tell people, ‘In some ways, my leukemia diagnosis was the best thing to happen to me.’

Bill credits his recovery to the excellent physicians at Siteman and the remarkable support of his family, friends, co-workers and community. Bill and his wife, Karen, have been married for more than 35 years. Together, they have four grown children – Patty, Christian, Gerry and Mary.

After retiring from his 20-year career at Emerson Electric, Bill began working alongside his brother at his company, Clarkson Eyecare, where he discovered the need for vision improvement in the underserved community. This inspired Bill to found a local nonprofit vision care organization in 2004 called Eyecare Charity of Mid-America, which provides vision improvement for over 2,000 children a year through clinics and a mobile vision clinic.

Pedal the Cause: Team Leukemia
Bill at 2015 Pedal the Cause. View more photos of Bill and his family.

Today, Bill has been in remission for six years and has returned to his active lifestyle. He walks every morning, plays golf often and, more recently, took up cycling. At his five-year remission checkup with Dr. Cashen last year, she suggested Bill participate in Pedal the Cause, an annual cycling fundraising event that donates all its proceeds to innovative cancer research projects at Siteman Cancer Center and St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Cashen connected Bill with Bill Eades, the Director of the Flow Cytometry Core at Siteman. Eades organizes “Team Leukemia” for Pedal the Cause, and is joined by much of the bone marrow transplant team, including Dr. Cashen. Bill rode with the team last year, helping them raise more than $27,000. This year, Bill and Eades will serve as co-captains for Team Leukemia.

“I could immediately see Bill Eades’ passion for this cause when I met him. He’s constantly inspiring me. I’m looking forward to co-captaining with him,” Bill says. “I’ve committed to ride 50 miles at the race this year to demonstrate that this research works. I’m living proof. I want to get more people involved and raise even more money for this important research.”

Learn more about Pedal the Cause, Team Leukemia and how you can get involved.