Bob Shank and his family

Leukemia patient saved by his granddaughter

A stem cell transplant was the only option to tackle Bob Shank's cancer

Bob Shank was always in motion. In high school he was an athlete, class president and valedictorian. As an adult, he ran 40 miles a week, finished 25 marathons and stressed preventive health care. He grew his family’s mechanical contracting business, sold it and started a nonprofit to mentor corporate leaders.

Bob Shank speaking at HHI SPOL
Bob Shank speaking at National Hardware/Homebuilding Industry Spirit of Life gala.

But in late 2021, something began to drag on Shank. His weight dropped. Falls became frequent. In early 2022, tests found 18 abnormalities in Shank’s blood. It would take weeks to see a specialist about the results, so Shank called someone he had worked with in his leadership nonprofit, The Master’s Program.

“He had been president of a local, notable hospital and an internist by trade. I sent him my results and asked, ‘What does this say to you?’ He said, ‘Go straight to the hospital and demand that they admit you. You’ve got acute leukemia,’” Shank says.

In the following days, Shank’s life of action dissolved into helplessness. He got double pneumonia and acute anemia. He couldn’t breathe. His local hospital spent four days stabilizing him before an ambulance took him to City of Hope in the middle of the night.

CML progresses to secondary AML

“His disease was rapidly progressing,” recalls Haris Ali, M.D., associate professor in the Division of Leukemia, Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation. Originally diagnosed with slow-growing chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), Shank’s condition had deteriorated into the much harder to treat secondary acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Worse, genetic testing showed Shank had a rare mutation in his TP53 gene, which regulates DNA repair. A damaged TP53 gene makes the risk of cancer much higher—“Bad prognosis, poor response to treatment and poor survival rates,” Ali says.

Ali decided Shank’s only chance was aggressive chemotherapy to clear the way for a stem cell transplant that would restore his body’s ability to make blood. Shank called on his friends and his faith for help. “I knew that by Christmas I would either be in heaven or I would be healed,” he says.

Shank got multiple rounds of chemo that included venetoclax, a drug developed in clinical trials at City of Hope. He went into remission and was ready to receive a transplant. But an international search for a match came up empty. Shank was in the hospital with an immune system destroyed by chemotherapy and 60 pounds lighter than in his days of action.

“Without a match, there was no prospect for resolution,” he says. “They could kill the bone marrow, but they couldn’t bring me back to life. I’d be blood transfusion-dependent until that could be resolved.”

Seeking a stem cell donor

Doctors tested Shank’s children and grandchildren for a stem cell match. One grandson had six of 10 possible markers. Then Shank’s 17-year-old granddaughter, Avery Krusiewicz, spoke up: “Why did you test the men and not me?”

Transplants work better with donors over 18, preferably male if the recipient is male. Also, a minor cannot give legal consent on her own, and ethical guidelines recommend that risk to the young donor should be minimal and that she be better medical match than all the tested adults.

Krusiewicz’s results were. City of Hope’s donor selection committee — a panel of hematologists, geneticists, nurses and technicians — agreed to her offer. Ali says, “We chose the granddaughter over the grandson because she had better KIR typing, which translates into better immune response to the leukemia” in the recipient.

Bob Shank and his granddaughter, Avery
Bob Shank and granddaughter Avery

“I was dumbfounded!” Krusiewicz recalls. “And I was honored.”

Shank says, “Within three minutes, I went from my lowest point to a place of hope. At the weakest moment of my human experience, I was able to stumble onto the best-case scenario.”

Shank, now 70, told his story to donors and volunteers who gathered at the National Hardware/Homebuilding Industry Spirit of Life gala in Las Vegas in February. Shank is a friend and mentor of one of the gala’s honorees, Tom Koos, President and CEO of PrimeSource Brands. The industry group raised $1.8 million at the gala to support City of Hope.

“The gratitude toward you as underwriters of the work being done at City of Hope for people like me is tangible and real and critical,” he told the hundreds of people gathered to support City of Hope. “My cancer was just one of 100 types of cancer. There are 135,000 patients served every year by City of Hope. I’m grateful that I was one of them. And I thank you tonight for your part in that.”

Shank’s body returned to action. In some patients, transplanted stem cells can take six weeks to graft, but in Shank they grafted within 17 days. On Day 19, Shank was discharged with no evidence of cancer. Even more surprising, Shank’s TP53 mutation disappeared. “Apparently, it was the leukemia that first generated the mutation,” Ali says. “The chemo got rid of it, and the transplant consolidated it.”

Shank says, “The care community who brought me through my leukemia treatment and ultimate remission had great physicians who carried the ball, but the team of nurses, nurse practitioners and physician assistants were alongside us every step of the way. Through 11 weeks of inpatient care, the 24-hour attention I received from these amazing care professionals made all the difference.”