“Any athlete will tell you they had to work really hard to succeed – and there are a lot of setbacks along the way,” says AJ Kitt. As a former World Cup Alpine ski racer and member of the U.S. Olympic ski team, he knows it takes tenacity to become a top competitor. He says, “You have to have the discipline to carry on.”
The same was true of his battle with cancer.
Retired from downhill ski racing, AJ lives in Hood River and coaches young athletes in his beloved sport – including his own children. He’s got his hands full as a parent of 12-year-old triplets.
“I’m shagging the kids out of bed at 5:45 in the morning for training,” he says. “The days they sleep in are the days they go to school.” Just getting everyone out the door for a day on the mountain is an adventure, with his wife and dog and kids jostling in the kitchen getting breakfast ready, wrangling all the gear. He shakes his head at the household chaos. “It’s crazy! But we love it.”
In 2016, AJ noticed that he was losing weight. “When I’d go up to the mountain, I couldn’t walk from my car to the lodge at altitude without getting winded,” he says. “I didn’t really understand what was going on.” He scheduled a physical. That’s when his doctor observed an enlarged spleen. Further tests showed that AJ had chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML. The news was terrifying.
“The first thing I thought about when I was diagnosed with CML was my kids,” he says. “They’re still young, and I want to be able to see them through high school, college, marriage. All that seemed like it was slipping away – until I met Dr. Druker.”
AJ soon learned that a world-renowned CML expert lived just 60 miles down the road in Portland. Brian Druker, MD, director of the Knight Cancer Institute, transformed the treatment of CML when he developed Gleevec, a revolutionary drug that targets the genetic mutation that causes this type of cancer. With Gleevec and newer, second-generation drugs, patients’ blood counts can return to normal, and so can their lives. Druker, who holds the JELD-WEN Chair of Leukemia Research, also continues to see patients.
"I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know if I had terminal cancer. So, to have Dr. Druker explain to me the success rate in treating CML was really comforting. It helped calm me down a lot.”
“I sent Dr. Druker my labs at 9:00 on a Monday morning and by noon he had called me,” says AJ. “He said, ‘We’re going to get you in to OHSU. It’s going to be fine.’ It was within four days of my diagnosis and I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know if I had terminal cancer. So, to have Dr. Druker explain to me the success rate in treating CML was really comforting. It helped calm me down a lot.”
AJ started therapy immediately. The first year or so wasn’t easy. He had side effects that he didn’t expect. He felt nauseous every day. “My numbers didn’t come down as soon as I hoped,” he says. “It’s a matter of continuing to believe that if you keep fighting, eventually it will go your way.”
He tried a different drug, with better results. “I take it on an empty stomach in the morning and I don’t feel a thing. And my numbers are diving,” he says.
Today, AJ is back to his normal routine – as busy and complicated and wonderful as it was before his diagnosis.
“I’m fortunate that CML is the disease that I have and that the treatment is one that doesn’t debilitate,” he says. “What I want more than anything is to be able to be energetic and lively with my kids. Gleevec, the Knight Cancer Institute and Dr. Druker are giving cancer patients the gift to continue on with their families.”