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When Ryan Corbi thought about how he would spend his senior week before graduating from Villanova University in 2005, he did not imagine that it would include getting tested for leukemia. He especially did not imagine that he would be diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), an uncommon type of cancer of the bloods cells that typically affects older adults.
In November 2004, Ryan began experiencing intense stomach pains and intestinal issues after attending his cousin's wedding in Puerto Rico. He found it painful to eat and, as a result, lost 35 pounds over a four month period. Ryan knew something was wrong and decided to get a check-up with his general practitioner over the college winter break.
"It was second semester of my senior year. I just didn't go back for more tests."
His doctor ordered a series of blood tests, and she determined that he contracted H pylori, a bacterium that inhabits areas of the stomach, while out of the country. She asked him to come back for more tests to check his blood counts after he finished the 10-day treatment regimen, but by that time, Ryan was back at Villanova. "It was second semester of my senior year. I had extracurricular activities and graduate school applications to worry about, so I just didn't go back for more tests."
With the stress of finals and papers in April 2005, Ryan began to experience similar symptoms to when he had H pylori. His general practitioner from home had been appointed the new director of Villanova's student health center, so Ryan made an appointment for a check-up. "The first thing she said when she walked in the door was, 'You never came to see me again. Roll up your sleeves, we're taking blood.'"
Ryan had elevated white blood counts in places that indicated leukemia.
The tests came back negative for H pylori but showed that Ryan had elevated white blood counts in places that indicated leukemia. He immediately called his parents, and they drove his medical records to Fox Chase the very next day. Ryan's mother had been a patient at Fox Chase in the fall of 2004 to get a precancerous mass removed. "Thankfully, it turned out to be benign, but it gave my family a great relationship with Fox Chase."
"Dr. Smith was terrific. He scheduled me right away."
Dr. Mitchell Smith happened to be passing by the nurse's desk on the way to his office and overheard Ryan's parents discussing Ryan's medical records. Dr. Smith offered to take a look at Ryan's history and suggested Ryan come to Fox Chase for a bone marrow aspiration for more rigorous testing. "Dr. Smith was terrific. He had a cancellation for the upcoming week and scheduled me right away."
The results showed that Ryan had CML, which is commonly treated with Gleevec, a drug that interferes with the growth of some cancer cells. Gleevec is used to treat a type of blood cancer called Philadelphia chromosome positive chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). It is also used to treat certain tumors of the stomach and digestive system.
"For me, a guy in his early 20's, to have this particular type of leukemia - a genetic mutation which is usually seen in people who are in the latter half of life - and to be diagnosed a few years after Gleevec was approved - it's beyond coincidence in a lot of ways."
Dr. Smith began exploring treatment options with Ryan and his family, including a bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy, stem cell transplant, and targeted therapy drugs. Ryan was not a good candidate for the stem cell transplant program and was hesitant about the bone marrow transplant, so Dr. Smith recommended that Ryan begin taking Gleevec.
"My response to Gleevec was amazing."
"My response to Gleevec was amazing," Ryan recalls. "I had very slight side effects the first 2 weeks and then my body adjusted to it. Since then, I haven't felt sick or had a single negative symptom." Within a year of beginning his Gleevec regimen, he was in full molecular remission.
"Dr. Smith and my nurse were so patient and I'm grateful that they were my care team."
In 2010, Ryan passed the 5 year mark of his diagnosis and has a routine check-up with Dr. Smith every three months to monitor his blood count. "Everyone at Fox Chase is doing amazing work," Ryan says. "They have top notch facilities, and a staff that understands that it's not just the disease that they're treating, or even just the individual they are treating, but the individual and all of their family and friends who need reassurance. Dr. Smith and my primary nurse, Jeanie, were so patient with my parents throughout the process, and I'm grateful that they were my care team."
Despite his diagnosis, Ryan feels that he's had a completely normal life.
"My life has been practically unaffected except that I've taken 1 pill a day for 5 years. Being diagnosed with CML did help me reorient my life toward where my passions really lie and look forward to the important things like my recent engagement, though. In a lot of ways, the leukemia was a blessing in disguise."