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Couple Survives Leukemia and Esophageal Cancer Together

Cancer patients Tom and Judy Crosbie.

October 02, 2019

Judy and Tom Crosbie have been taking care of each other for more than 50 years. But, the strength in their love story is more apparent now than ever. Leaning on each other and cheering each other on, they are both battling cancer and its effects.

The Crosbies, who live in Leawood, Kansas, have enjoyed generally good health. Judy, 75, and Tom, 77, have led interesting, active lives taking part in mountain biking, horseback riding, community theater and civic and social events. The couple also served the American Royal as governors. To say they are active and involved is an understatement.

Nothing could slow them down, until Judy’s leukemia diagnosis in November 2015. Her symptoms came on suddenly and hit hard. “I thought I had the flu, a terrible case of it,” says Judy. “I went to the doctor and he thought I had bronchitis and the flu. They did blood work and sent me home to rest.”

Before Judy could get to her front door, the clinic called with the news of her leukemia diagnosis. Judy’s doctor immediately referred her to The University of Kansas Cancer Center, where she received 8 weeks of chemotherapy.

“The chemo wasn’t so bad,” says Judy. “I’ve always been a positive person and was determined I wasn’t going to let it get me down.”

Stem cell transplant is a chance worth taking

Siddhartha Ganguly, MD, director of the lymphoma and myeloma program at the cancer center, managed Judy’s treatment and eventual stem cell transplant. Judy also saw Leyla Shune, MD, who specializes in blood and marrow transplantation (BMT).

“Her leukemia is aggressive and difficult to treat. She was very sick when she came to us,” explains Dr. Ganguly. “But, she is a fighter and wanted to win. That made a huge difference. She was willing to take chances. The stem cell transplant had slim chances that it would work, but we decided to try it.”

To find a suitable donor for the stem cell transplant, Judy’s bone marrow was tested against her daughter’s first, but it wasn’t a match. Then a search through the national registry of bone marrow donors was done, to no avail. “But, my brother, who lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, was a perfect match,” says Judy. After the initial transplant, Judy required a booster.

“Her stem cells became weak and were considered a graft failure,” says Dr. Ganguly. “But, we gave her some additional new stem cells for a boost and it worked. Within 3 weeks, her blood count was fully back to normal.”

In November 2016, Judy celebrated her 1-year anniversary and was told she was cancer-free. She currently undergoes preventive chemotherapy 3 times a week.

A surprising esophageal cancer diagnosis

As Judy was recovering from her stem cell transplant, Tom got sick. “I couldn’t get food to go down right,” he says. “The doctor suggested it was acid reflux, so I tried some medications for a brief period. They didn’t work.”

In August 2016, Tom had an MRI and an upper endoscopy. Physicians determined he had a tumor in his esophagus. They referred him to Mazin Al-kasspooles, MD, colorectal surgeon at the cancer center.

“Tom is one of our star patients,” says Dr. Al-kasspooles. “His esophageal cancer was locally advanced, but had not traveled to other organs. Tom was motivated and didn’t want to be in the hospital or under the weather. We administered chemotherapy and radiation to localize and shrink the tumor.”

Tom had his chemotherapy and radiation treatments at the cancer center’s south location. There, he saw hematologist/oncologist Richard McKittrick, MD, and radiation oncologist, Joseph Waller, MD.

“In September, we did a minimally-invasive procedure to remove his esophagus and create a new one by pulling part of his stomach up into his chest,” says Dr. Al-Kasspooles. “Fortunately, due to his particular diagnosis, the surgery wasn’t as complicated as it sometimes is. It takes a long time to recover from this procedure, but he’s doing quite well!"

“I was supposed to be her caregiver,” says Tom. “Judy was just getting back on her feet, and I was trying to take care of her. But, instead, this time she took care of me.”

“That’s just what we do, though,” says Judy. “We take care of each other, whatever is necessary.”

“Cancer can take a lot of things, I suppose,” Tom says. “It can take your looks, your dignity, friends, health, social life. But it can’t take everything. Judy gives me strength through her tough outlook. I’ve got to be strong, too.”

Compassionate cancer care

Both Tom and Judy agree that it was a lot easier to get through cancer with the support and compassion of their cancer center care teams.

“I would never go anywhere other than The University of Kansas Cancer Center,” says Judy. “I became friends with so many of my nurses. Everyone there is just wonderful.”

Tom agrees. “I can’t say enough good things about my radiation and oncology teams at the south office. It takes special people to do what they do, and they couldn’t be more special, if they tried. They are great.”

Tom and Judy have become regular visitors at the Westwood location. They surprised the nurses by dressing up for Halloween, enjoy playing practical jokes and are always ready with a hug.

“These people are simply the best,” Judy says of the care providers.

For now, the couple continues to lean on each other. They have 2 adult children and 3 grandchildren. “We just want to get back to living a normal life,” says Tom.

“Cancer is not a death sentence,” Judy adds. “There is life after cancer, and Tom and I will get to enjoy it.”

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