Lessons from my leukemia diagnosis and cord blood transplant – Alex Tung

July 22, 2015 | by Denise Heady

City of Hope patient Alex Tung Leukemia patient Alex Tung waited six months for a bone marrow match, but because of his Chinese heritage, the search proved more difficult than expected. Instead, he signed up for a clinical trial transplant that used umbilical cord blood.

720 days. That's how long Alex Tung, 38, had to give up surfing after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. For most people, even some surfers, such a hiatus wouldn't be a big deal, but for Tung, surfing has been everything.

The Southern California resident began surfing when he was in elementary school, immediately falling in love with the sport and the ocean. As an adult, Tung would head straight to the beach to go surfing. It was his version of meditating. Nothing mattered when he was in the water.

“When I’m in the ocean, I feel more connected to mother nature,” Tung said. “It clears my mind, gives me positive energy and soothes my soul. It’s my escape. It’s everything to me.”

It was in the ocean, in early 2014, where Tung first noticed red dots on his body. He didn’t think much of it at the time.

Then, in May of that year, he went on a surfing trip to Hawaii. That's when he also started noticing bruises on his legs and found himself getting tired easily. When he returned home to Cerritos, he decided to finally take his family's and friend’s advice to make an appointment with his doctor.

Tung’s doctor immediately suspected Tung had a form of leukemia. Tests proved him right.

Alex Tung Leukemia patient Alex Tung celebrates 100 days post-transplant at City of Hope's annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion.

Tung immediately started chemotherapy and spent a month in a local hospital. After finishing the treatment, Tung was told his only hope for a cure would be a stem cell, or bone marrow, transplant.

Finding a match proves difficult

Soon after his diagnosis, Tung came to City of Hope hoping to undergo a transplant.

Every year thousands of people with life-threatening blood cancers depend on a transplant of stem cells from bone marrow to survive their disease. Although some are lucky enough to find a bone marrow match within their families, others have to seek an unrelated donor through the National Bone Marrow Registry.

Tung waited six months for a match, but because of his Chinese heritage, the search proved more difficult than expected.

Although 12 million people have signed up with the registry, only 7 percent are of Asian descent.

Ultimately, with the guidance of his doctor, Elizabeth Budde, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, Tung decided to sign up for a clinical trial that used umbilical cord blood for transplantation instead of bone marrow. Cord blood has been found to provide the stem cells necessary for transplant when a blood cancer patient doesn't have an ideal stem cell match.

Today, Tung is nearly six months post-transplant and still recovering. Upon his diagnosis, he was told to stay out of the water for two years due to the risk of infection, so he's slowly counting down the days until he can step into the ocean once more. He recently hit the 387-days-to-go mark and, though waiting is difficult, Tung said, “Things couldn’t look better.”

Reflecting on his journey      

Here, Tung shares some of the wisdom he's gained during his treatment journey, along with practical tips for patients who have been newly diagnosed.

  1. Stay positive. “This is the first and foremost important piece advice I would give,” Tung said. “You are about to undergo the biggest battle of your life, and you need to stay mentally strong. Not once did I allow myself to think I wasn’t going to make it.”
  1. It’s OK to trust your doctors. “When I first got sick, I didn’t want to believe I had cancer,” Tung said. “I wanted second and third opinions and didn’t trust any of the doctors. I finally realized that these doctors were not only here to help me, but wanted to help me. Once I accepted this, the process became more comfortable for me.”
  1. Let your diagnosis change you for the better. "My experience with cancer, believe it or not, has actually enriched my life,” Tung said. “It made me realize how selfish I was; wrapped up in my own bubble. It really was a blessing in disguise. I have become stronger as person and have really grown. I am now involved with a couple of organizations and trying to do what I can to help.”

Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.


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