Ken Murray, 69, of Lake St. Louis, became a flight attendant after serving in the United States Air Force and as a police officer in St. Louis County. In April 2013, he was in Dallas for emergency procedure training. An avid runner and weightlifter, Ken often worked out before or after his shift, but this trip was different. He felt sluggish and exhausted, needing to sleep from the time he got to his room until it was time to get up.
When Ken returned home, he started developing a pain in his ribs — so painful he couldn’t even lie down. His wife, Joan, insisted on taking him to the ER. After several tests, they couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and he went home, but the pain and exhaustion continued. He returned to the ER. Finally, a blood test showed something was awry. After a bone marrow biopsy, it was confirmed that Ken had B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). He was referred to Siteman Cancer Center.
“I didn’t know anything about leukemia before my diagnosis,” says Ken. “But I could tell by the reaction of my wife and the doctors, it wasn’t a good thing.”
Transplant Followed by Trial
Under the care of Keith Stockerl-Goldstein, MD, Ken began chemotherapy. His treatment started with oral medications. Then he had one week in the hospital and one week at home over the next two months. This was followed by another round of chemotherapy in preparation for a stem cell transplant. Ken’s transplant in August was successful, but he was hospitalized again four months later with graft-versus-host disease, or GVHD.
Given steroids, Ken was released and doing great. He even began working out again. It wasn’t easy and his stamina wasn’t nearly where it once was, but Ken persisted. Before long, he was running for 45 minutes without stopping.
Two and a half years passed until Ken began noticing bruising and blisters in his mouth. He knew the cancer was back. His treatment options were limited, and he was enrolled in a clinical trial by Juno Therapeutics using CAR-T cells, or chimeric antigen receptor T cells. This immunotherapy involved extracting Ken’s own T cells, or immune cells, and activating them to attack and kill cancerous cells. After one month, a bone marrow biopsy showed that the leukemia was gone. Two months later, he was started on a targeted oral chemotherapy to prevent a relapse.
Throughout his treatment, Ken found support in his family, including his brother and his wife, Joan. As a retired pediatrician, Joan helped explain to Ken the medical nuances of his care. “She stayed with me at the hospital, day and night — despite me telling her to go home and relax,” recalls Ken. “She was always looking things up and discussing them with Dr. Goldstein. She was just amazing.”
Ken also took relief in knowing that he was receiving the best treatment in the world by an experienced and compassionate team. “Dr. Goldstein and the nurses were amazingly wonderful. They worked so hard, not only in my care but in doing what they could to make it fun — like shaving my head into a mohawk when my hair started falling out,” shares Ken. “I just can’t say enough.”
Persisting With Positivity
Ken’s leukemia diagnosis came just months before he planned to retire. Since May 2016, he has been able to enjoy both retirement and remission. He has returned to his favorite hobbies: hiking, fossil hunting and traveling with his wife. He has a newfound appreciation for life. “I’m breathing, I’m feeling good and I’m not in pain. Life just couldn’t be better,” he says.
Ken and his wife were even flown to the Juno Therapeutics headquarters in Seattle so employees could meet a recipient of the CAR-T cell therapy. He was honored to share his story with those who had a hand in his outcome.
He hopes his story will give others hope, and he encourages those facing a similar diagnosis to stay positive. “Hope for the best, keep your chin up and be positive. Being upset wasn’t for me,” says Ken. “Do the best you can and make it the best you can. My thought always was, ‘You can’t control everything, but what you can control is how you make yourself and others feel.”