Life after leukemia
10/31/2012 9:57:23 AM
By Jim Ryan
When Kenny Zachow entered his last year of pharmacy school at the University of Montana in 2010, the last thing he had on his mind was a diagnosis of cancer.
It was on a short three-hour drive back home to Spokane Valley that Zachow began to notice something wasn't right. He started to experience blurry vision in his left eye.
"I was in the middle of one of my clinical rotations, and I was coming back for Thanksgiving," he explained. "Luckily, I happened to be in Spokane at the time. I went into the hospital, and that's when everything started."
Zachow was a young man, just 25, who kept himself in great shape by running, lifting weights and playing almost every sport. When he was at East Valley High School, he was an all-league basketball standout.
"I was one of those guys you would never think something like this would happen to," he said. "When I got home during Thanksgiving, I went to urgent care here in the Valley, and they couldn't find anything wrong with my eye. So they sent me over to the ER at Spokane Valley Medical Center. That's when they took my blood and found the leukemia."
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 47,150 new cases of leukemia are expected to be diagnosed in the United States in 2012, with 1,050 being found here in Washington State.
The lab did genetic testing on him and found he had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). According to the National Marrow Donor Program, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is a fast-growing cancer of the white blood cells. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that the body uses to fight infections. In ALL, the bone marrow makes lots of unformed cells called blasts that normally would develop into lymphocytes. However, the blasts are abnormal, do not develop and cannot fight off infections. Thus, the number of abnormal cells (or leukemia cells) grows quickly, crowding out the normal red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets the body needs.
Zachow was immediately admitted to the hospital and spent the next month there taking chemotherapy and getting his blood count stabilized. He was fortunate to go into remission after the first seven days but had to spend the next three weeks hospitalized because of his blood counts and the fatigue caused by the chemotherapy.
"With the testing they did, they found I had the bad genetics for ALL and that required a bone marrow transplant," Zachow said.
He traveled to Seattle in the summer of 2011, where he received the transplant, spending almost four months at the University of Washington Medical Center.
Now, after two years he is showing no signs of a recurrence, but explained the accepted benchmark for being truly cancer free is five years.
"If I make it to five years without the leukemia coming back, I will most likely die of getting hit by a car or a heart attack - something not anywhere close to cancer," he smiled.
He said that most people who go through a bone marrow transplant don't go back to work for almost a year, but he had no side effects or graph versus host disease, and he started working as a full-time pharmacist at Savon Pharmacy in the Liberty Lake Albertsons store in April 2012, about six months following his transplant.
Looking back at his ordeal over the past two years, he considers it an "eye-opener."
"It was one of those things where I was so healthy and it was never going to happen to me," he said. "Then all it took was the oncologist coming into my room, looking at me and saying: ‘You have leukemia.' What do you do? It changes every aspect of your life."
Now that he is out of treatment and cancer free for the past two years, he said he looks at life quite differently, including spending more time with his wife, Katie, and his son, Keygé Parks, and cherishing the support he has received from them, the rest of his family and his friends.
"Support is so huge," he said. "I can't imagine going through what I did without my family and friends. Some people aren't so lucky to have such a support system. The journey itself is so hard; I don't know how somebody could do it alone."
He explained he never took his family and friends for granted, but he now appreciates every second with them, especially going to the park with his son, who was born the month before he was diagnosed.
"My son was my rock through it all," Zachow said. "I didn't get to see him much through the whole thing because I wasn't supposed to see a whole lot of people, but having him there was awesome."
Katie, his wife of five years, said that Kenny's diagnosis made her appreciate life even more and realize how valuable it is.
Her advice to someone who has a husband or wife diagnosed with cancer is to stay strong and to be optimistic.
"It's scary when you first hear it, but people beat cancer all the time," she said.
Katie also said that while it is important for a husband or wife to support their spouse, it is just as important for the caregiver to take care of themselves. She said caregivers are of no help to anyone if they let the stress of the ordeal affect their health.
"Ask for help so you don't get overwhelmed," she said. "Do something with your friends, go shopping or get a massage. Have an outlet for yourself."
Looking back on his entire cancer experience, Zachow feels blessed that he is now able to help and counsel people who are newly diagnosed or traveling the cancer journey.
"Half of it is attitude and mental," he explained. "There is so much your body can do and so much of which you don't have control. From the point you are diagnosed, you feel you've lost control of everything. Up until that point I could work out, I could push my body, I could basically do whatever I wanted to do. Then, when you're told you have cancer, you lose control and you're kind of going with the wind. You have to stay positive; the mental aspect is huge and so is the support system."
For Zachow, one aspect of that support system is the community of Liberty Lake. He points to the fundraiser at a local restaurant that helped him pay for the cost of his bone marrow transplant. He also praises the support of his co-workers at Savon Pharmacy, who he considers a second family.
Zachow encourages those going through the cancer battle to contact him, even while he is at work, if they are seeking guidance or some insight into how they can get through their disease.
"It's hard enough to find somebody who wants to talk about their cancer experience, but as a pharmacist I do know a lot about the drugs and the whole cancer thing already," he said. "I consider myself a good resource, both medically and personally, for people going through this disease."
Wife, Katie, and son, Keygé Parks
Basketball and wakeboarding
Fourth of July
Best day of his life
The day his son was born