After Life-Saving Treatment for Leukemia, One Patient Pays it Forward
When he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, Ralph Olney says his odds of surviving five years weren’t particularly high – but that was more than 11 years ago now, and he’s kept a positive outlook. In fact, Ralph compares himself to a cat when thinking about the odds.
“If I was a cat, I’d probably only have one life left,” Ralph says.
But that one life he has still is precisely what’s motivated him to get involved with the Wilmot Warrior Walk this year.
Diagnosed in July 2011, Ralph had chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. His brother, a perfect match, donated the cells for the transplant. Unfortunately, the treatment was challenging for Ralph. He experienced significant graft versus host disease, meaning the donated immune cells from his brother were attacking Ralph’s cells already in his body. It created side effects like skin discoloration and sores and it triggered a muscle disease. But Ralph was able to overcome the side effects and, in 2012, he returned to work in human resources for Carestream Health.
A couple years later, after experiencing more side effects including blood clots and a pulmonary embolism, he decided to retire in March 2014.
Two weeks later, he learned his leukemia had returned.
His oncology team, led by Jane Liesveld, M.D., a hematologist at Wilmot Cancer Institute, suggested another stem cell transplant, again using his brother’s stem cells. He says he had a 17 percent chance of surviving, but it worked. While he’s developed other illnesses as side effects, more than eight years after the second transplant, he’s still doing well.
“We believe there was some divine intervention,” Ralph says.
Since the second transplant, Ralph has been on a maintenance chemotherapy. Every seven weeks, he comes to Wilmot for three days in a row to receive chemotherapy and he is on a number of medications for illnesses that have developed because of his cancer treatment. But he’s alive to spend time with family, travel to different places around the country and stay active in his church. He credits that to his faith as well as support from his family and oncology team at Wilmot and the University of Rochester Medical Center.
When his family was together for Christmas in 2018, he asked them if they could set a fundraising goal as a family for the Wilmot Warrior Walk. They were on-board immediately. Being an engineer, he spent time calculating what their goal should be.
They thought raising $10,000 would be feasible, but Ralph’s children reminded him of his own chances of meeting his goal – surviving — while he received treatment. He had had about a 1 in 7 chance of surviving, but he beat the odds. That perspective drove the family to set a massive goal.
“What the heck, let's do something that will get people's attention,” he told his family.
Then they set their fundraising goal to $20,000. The most any team has ever raised per year is $10,000, and $20,000 would be about 10 percent of the $200,000 goal Wilmot has set for the whole event. In 2019, Team Olney ended up raising $18,500. In 2020, they raised $23,500 and in 2021, they made it to $27,000.
For Ralph, it’s worth chasing those odds for a place that means so much to him.
“If you asked me, why am I involved? And why is our family involved? If it was not for the cancer center, and the UR Medical Center and all the specialists that are available, I can honestly say that I would not be here today,” he says. “And we really owe my life to the cancer center. The improved health allowed me to care for my beloved late wife Beverly at home until she passed after her courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease on June 29 of 2021.”
He shared these tips for others wishing to raise funds through the Wilmot Warrior Walk:
- Set a bold goal.
- Reach out to as many people as you can through any means you can.
- Tell your story, not just about the disease you have, but how you’ve approached your disease. Everybody has a story and that seems to be what people respond to.
- If you’re a cancer survivor, patient or caregiver of a patient trying to raise funds, share information about what’s happening in the field of oncology around your type of cancer. Help bring that together for people you know. Partnering with the Wilmot Advancement team can be helpful with that.
- Consider fundraisers. In the past, he's raffled off a weekend at his rental property on Seneca Lake.
- Try to get corporate sponsors and talk to local businesses about giving a donation to your team as a sponsorship.
This story was originaly published in July 2019 but was updated in July 2022.