I have to admit: I had a lot of apprehension about meeting with Joe at first. Who wants to think about cancer? But I can honestly say that it was one of the most positive and inspiring conversations I’ve ever had. Joe’s love for life, his gratitude to everyone who got him where he is today, and his commitment to supporting cancer research is truly inspiring.
Joe Grojean is a senior industrial hygienist for UW Environmental Health and Safety, and he received treatment at UW Medical Center, so this is a UW story through and through. Joe is also taking it a step further by starting a cancer support group for faculty and staff. Click here if you’re interested.
How did you find out something was wrong?
In my prior job I was a contractor through the EPA and we were required to do annual physicals because of exposure to hazardous materials. One year my blood counts were lower than they should have been. I went to a generalist, a heart doctor, and an endocrinologist, but no one could find anything wrong. Finally I went to a blood doctor and he did a bone marrow draw. He said I had a condition and I shouldn’t be alarmed, but I should go to a specialist at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. I thought they were going to track me for research.
That day, December 18, the doctor came in deadpan solemn. He told me I had myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). In 15 minutes he laid out my life. If MDS is allowed to progress it will turn into leukemia. He told me there’s several stages, and that if I didn’t get treatment I would be dead within 6-18 months.
Being told you have six months to live, life changes a little bit.
What did you do?
Before I was admitted I asked my doctor if there’s something I should do to prepare my body. He told me to enjoy life, so I threw a party with my friends and family.
I was admitted to UW Medical Center January 5 and I spent a month there getting ready for chemo. The nurses were fabulous. The people that work there were so supportive.
What were you thinking?
You know, I didn’t think of it as the big bad C word. Everyone knows someone that has cancer and has beat cancer. I thought of it like having the common cold. But every cancer is different. Leukemia is one of the worst ones. It’s throughout your whole body. How they treat MDS is they destroy your blood and replace it with someone else’s. That’s what they started to do. It’s about the most aggressive thing we can do the whole body.
What happened next?
I went home after a month tired and exhausted. I came down with a bad infection that sent me back to UWMC for two months. When you don’t have an immune system you can be on your deathbed within an hour. It was one infection after another, but I finally beat the infections and they found a genetic stem cell match!
How does matching work?
Well, we found out that my brothers are a match for each other but not for me. But the Gift of Life registry found someone out there who was a match. They got stem cells from him, which is basically a glorified blood draw, and transplanted them to me. (Less than 20% of stem cells for transplant come from bone marrow extraction now.)
I started healing from there. Working out, trying to eat, trying to stay healthy. Six to eight months into it I realized I wasn’t quite healthy, so I asked my doctor to do a blood draw early. The cancer had come back. The crazy thing about it was that there were hints of my blood in my system. My blood had changed itself genetically to protect itself from the new blood! It’s amazing. Unfortunately it also meant the cancer survived.
My doctor, Dr. Bart Scott, is a brilliant, brilliant man. You could see how upset he was. He said, “You must think I’m the angel of death.” I said, “No, you are my guardian angel. I should be dead right now.” His specialty is MDS reoccurrence. Couldn’t have had a better doctor, and he told me we had fewer options the second time around. We couldn’t be as aggressive because there’s a 90% fatality rate with full chemo. So we did months of chemo and a big dose of radiation. And they found another stem cell donor!
And this one was successful. I felt better faster than the first time.
Then what happened?
Well, I had no immune system. My goal was not to get sick. I would avoid shaking hands or hugs, and would open door knobs with my sleeve. When my kids were sick I’d go as far away as possible. My kids Megan was 10 and Nick was 8. It was a really emotional time for them.
One of my friends set up a website to get donations to feed the family. Every day someone brought a meal for months. Some people were donating at least once a week. People I hardly even knew came out of the woodwork to support us.
You mentioned early that you met your donor?
Yes, 11 months after the transplant I got an email that my donor was trying to contact me. He was 26 years old. What motivates a kid to do this? Do they fully comprehend what they just did?
I was very excited to meet this kid. So Gift of Life flew my wife and I, and my whole family flew out to New Jersey for the Greeting event. He’s the kind of kid you want to know, raise, have as a family member. He just happened to be at a walk for Israel, walking past a Gift of Life registration booth, and six months later he was in the hospital to donate stem cells.
I completely changed blood types and I had to get all my newborn inoculations all over again. I also received his allergies. Now I’m allergic to shell fish, which he never knew because he’s an Orthodox Jew. It turns out I must have Jewish heritage, which I never new, so that’s why we’re a match. It’s all that science that I love.
At this point it’s been a year and half since that transplant and the doctor’s finally said you’re healthy. Get out there, go do something, get back to work. I landed here at UW.
It’s different every day. I evaluate safety in the workplace. “Hey Joe, can you check out this confined space or scaffold?” Lead, asbestos, indoor air quality issues…we make sure renovations are done properly. Give me a call if you see dust anywhere!
What would you tell someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer?
You can beat it. Give your body time. It’s two steps forward, one step back every day. And let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. If anyone is out there reading this, I have no qualms meeting them for coffee or lunch, before work or after work. Even if people don’t have cancer and are just interested.
Thank you to Joe for sharing his story! Learn more about Joe’s treatment and recovery on the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance website. And please register for information about the cancer support group if you’d like to be informed once a date and time is selected.