Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

The will to survive

This is Reed's story...

"You are cancer-free."

Not many multiple myeloma patients ever hear those words.

When John McCarty, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center’s Bone Marrow Transplant Program, spoke them to Reed Whitener, it was a very bright moment at the end of 18 long, and often very dark, months of fighting for his life. Thanks to new treatments developed through clinical trials, Whitener is now on a path to be one of the first patients to be considered “cured” of this deadly disease.

Reed considered himself a typical 50-year old family man a husband, father of three teenagers and busy salesman when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare form cancer that attacks blood and bone, in September 2007. Historically, there is no cure for multiple myeloma, but significant advances in bone marrow transplants, particularly at National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Centers like Massey, have given many patients the ability to live with the disease much longer.

Whitener was told he had a big fight ahead. “In my first consultation at Massey following my diagnosis, the doctor one of many who would be a part of my clinical team told me he couldn’t tell me how long I would live, but he promised me that he would fight for me and my life as long as needed. And that’s exactly what they have all done,” Whitener said.

Over the next two years, Whitener went through rigorous chemotherapy, two bone marrow transplants, numerous surgeries, fought off two major infections and spent more than 100 days in the hospital.

“One day the nurse practitioner said to me, ‘In my 20 years experience, there’s only one person I’ve seen walk out of here after what you’ve been through.’ I said, Who’s that? He said, ‘You.’”

“Reed is a living example of taking what we learn from clinical trials and putting that knowledge to work improving care for the next patient,” said Amir Toor, M.D., who led a multiple myeloma stem cell transplant study that ended up being the basis for Whitener’s successful treatment.

"I don’t have words to express the gratitude I have for the determination the doctors and nurses brought to my care. Dr. Toor would call in on his days off to check on me. Dr. Harold Chung came to see me three times a day during my hospital stays — and always made sure my wife, Ellen, was doing OK, too. The nurses who cared for me are the embodiment of compassionate care,” said Whitener. “When I learned that the Bone Marrow Transplantation Program was one of the best in the nation, I was not surprised. I knew from the start that I was in the best of hands.”

Today Whitener is back at work, busy getting his twins ready for college and enjoying his second chance at life.

“In this field of medicine, every life saved is a major victory, but watching Reed return to his normal life is a special gift,” said Toor. “He has a very strong will to survive. He’s the kind of patient that makes it all worthwhile.”

Photo courtesy David Hale