Life after stem cell transplant — Part II

Curtis Richards
"The diagnosis made me focus my mind on all the ways I could contribute if I was able to beat this disease." — Curtis Richards, cancer survivor.

Stem cell transplants, formerly called bone marrow transplants, are used to treat cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma, as well as congenital or acquired bone marrow disorders. Since 1993, more than 500 patients have received stem cell transplants at UC Davis Cancer Center.

Led by the widely respected Carol Richman, director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Transplant Program, the team includes specialists in all areas of transplant science and patient care. She and pediatric oncologist Douglas Taylor oversee up to 60 transplants each year, achieving success rates that meet or exceed national averages. The program is the largest and most experienced of its kind in inland Northern California and the region’s only National Marrow Donor Transplant Program, giving patients access to potential donors worldwide.

Richman came to UC Davis in 1992 from Chicago, where she had a reputation as a skilled and compassionate physician. Early in her career, she participated in some of the first stem cell transplants at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and has since been driven to perfect the process.

“Over the past 15 years, stem cell therapy has matured, enabling more patients to receive this lifesaving treatment,” she says. “The environment for major progress in stem cell science is very supportive right now, and UC Davis will continue to play a lead role in this field of medicine.”

For Richman, watching her patients recover and regain or even improve quality of life is tremendously rewarding. In January, we shared the story of one of her patients — Brandy Perkins — who received a transplant thanks to an unrelated donor. We now bring you the story of another patient — Curtis Richards — who served as his own stem cell donor and, since his procedure, has been dedicated to helping children through sports.

A focus on the future

When Curtis Richards was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2002, the news sent his life into a tailspin. He became depressed. He felt hopeless. His mind could not let go of the question that haunts so many patients facing a serious disease — “Why me?”

Richards was 26 at the time — young, married, with three children to raise. An avid basketball player, youth sports coach and concert promoter, he was now completely sidelined by a very aggressive cancer.

Dr. Carol Richman"Over the past 15 years, stem cell therapy has matured, enabling more patients to receive this lifesaving treatment." 
— Carol Richman, director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Transplant Program.

It began with mysterious back pain that was so intense it brought Richards at one point to an emergency room. Doctors initially attributed it to a sports injury and gave him cortisone shots for the pain. Then his right leg began going numb and walking became difficult.

Finally, after falling in the shower and at a birthday picnic, he went back to the emergency room and encouraged his doctor to follow up more thoroughly. Tests showed a tumor pressing on his spine.

“When I found out I had cancer, it pretty much devastated me,” Richards recalled. “I had no idea what non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was or what the treatment would be. When I heard a transplant was my best option, I was worried, very emotional.”

Support from Richards’ mother, wife and Dr. Richman eased his fears. The transplant, performed on April 3, 2003, was a success.

Unlike donors who have related donors or are matched with unrelated donors through a national database, Richards served as his own stem cell donor. In this type of transplant, a patient’s own stem cells are removed from the blood, frozen and preserved before being reinfused back into the bloodstream.

For Richards, the transplant aftermath brought some complications — a rash, a few infections, cardiac problems and lingering back pain. Overall, he has fared very well. He is off all transplant-related medications, and the once-frequent doctor visits are now few and far between.

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The best news, of course, is Richards’ prognosis. Now that he is five years beyond his transplant and cancer-free, his future looks bright. That prospect underscores Richards’ new perspective on life, one that took root during those bleak days shortly after diagnosis. Through prayer and the encouragement of family and doctors, he came to view his cancer as a turning point, one that refocused him on his passion — coaching.

“I wasn’t the best kid growing up, I was into all sort of things,” he recalled. “The diagnosis made me focus my mind on all the ways I could contribute if I was able to beat this disease.”

In 2006, that desire to contribute prompted Richards and his cousin to launch a youth sports and mentoring organization, the Sacramento Junior Cougars. It serves about 275 boys and girls in Richards’ Pocket/Meadowview neighborhood. Richards also coaches youth basketball and baseball.

“With the transplant and recovery, I had a lot of time to think about my life,” he says. “You come to realize that God has his reasons for our trials, that there is a positive in all of this. My confidence is high, and I’m living for my kids and for the future.”