John Hemmingsen and his wife Cherie are a lively pair, bursting with stories of their adventures. Now in their 70s, the couple continues to visit the places they lived and traveled before retirement, when John’s engineering career took them to China, Canada, Oregon and South Carolina.
“My life has been rich, full and busy. I had energy to spare. I never imagined the challenge that was waiting for me ahead,” said John.
John was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in September 2013.
“Armed with an inherently upbeat perspective, I didn’t spend much time worrying, I just knew I had a new job to do. The job of living,” said John.
Doctors presented him with three options: no treatment, with a life expectancy of three to five months; standard treatment, with a one-year prognosis; or participation in a clinical trial conducted by Dr. Kim-Hien Dao at Oregon Health and Science University. The trial was risky. But, if he survived beyond two years, he had good prospects for long term survival.
John and Cherie chose option three without question. “Three years ago, this treatment was not possible for a person my age. That’s how quickly things change in the world of cancer treatment,” said John.
In October 2013, John and Cherie started a two-year “healing odyssey” as he calls it. John kept a detailed log of his treatment to help future patients better understand the complex process. It was an arduous regimen that began with two rounds of chemotherapy conducted by Dr. Dao, and countless blood transfusions over 31 days in the hospital and two months of outpatient treatments. After “killing the killers” as John calls it, Dr. Richard Maziarz performed a bone marrow transplant, which required daily hospital visits and months of follow up.
“The treatment at OHSU was so phenomenal, we never thought John wasn’t going to make it. It wasn’t even a concern,” said Cherie.
As John and Cherie share their story, they cite multiple examples of OHSU doctors, nurses and health workers who went above and beyond to make sure they received comprehensive care. A research coordinator on Dr. Dao’s team literally went the extra mile when she met the couple on the west side of Portland and showed them how to take the back roads to OHSU, avoiding rush hour traffic and making it easier to get to their appointments.
“For me that gesture was incredible. It helped alleviate my stress greatly,” said Cherie. “Our hospital team really felt like family to us,” added John.
On January 23, 2015, John had his one-year anniversary being cancer free. One year later, he and Cherie embarked on a white water rafting trip. The couple has returned to living life to the fullest— so much so that it’s hard to believe John was ever sick. But they know that life is unpredictable. Their motto is: “why do tomorrow what can be done today.”
John is finishing up a short book documenting his experience, called A Gifted Life, which they hope will help others going through the same treatment to understand what to expect.
“John’s life was a gift, and we wanted to give back,” said Cherie.
They also made a significant contribution to the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute to support early detection research and expand clinical trials – similar to the one that saved John’s life.