JOURNEY TO JOURNEY: Enduring painful leukemia thousands of miles away, survivor rides to raise money for cure

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AURORA | A lesson can be drawn from the two very different acts of completing a 157-mile long mountain bike ride and recovering from cancer. The only way to finish is to fight through the pain — and you can’t do that alone.

Brandon Nuechterlein, a physician’s assistant at Children’s Hospital Colorado and a leukemia survivor, will ride his third, three-day long Courage Classic bike ride July 20 with that lesson in mind.

In 1998, Nuechterlein was 15 years old and living in Thailand when the bones in his leg started to throb with pain. For a couple of months, high fevers caused him to wake up drenched in sweat. Doctors on the small, tropical island where he and his family were living guessed at several possible diagnoses: could it be a slipped disc from playing rugby? Malaria? Dengue fever? Cancer was an outlier in the realm of possible medical determinations, and something doctors at the small hospital never even dealt with.

His symptoms worsened, and one day, Nuechterlein went into septic shock. Bacteria had infiltrated his bloodstream. His white blood cell count spiked to 250,000. Normal range was 5,000 to 10,000. That meant his body was attempting to wage a futile war against a mysterious infection. From across the North Pacific Ocean, doctors at Children’s Hospital Colorado told Nuechterlein’s worried parents by phone that all signs pointed to leukemia.

“I had no idea what leukemia even was,” said Nuechterlein, now 30.

All he knew that day was pain. Imagine the kind of pain you feel the moment you break a bone, he says. Then imagine that pain as constant, and penetrating through your entire body. It was so intense that when his parents stepped out of the hospital room, he repeatedly hit his head against the wall in hopes of trying to knock himself unconscious. It was relentless, and painkillers weren’t effective because of the advanced state of his leukemia.

“I’m pretty active. I ride motorcycles and jump off things, I’ve broken bones and stuff, but none of that compares whatsoever to the pain from cancer,” he said.

Then he had to endure a 26-hour flight from Thailand to Colorado with a few Tylenol-codeine pills, which didn’t even begin to mask the pain. “It was complete insanity and agony,” he said.

At Children’s Hospital Colorado, doctors transfused Nuechterlein’s bloodstream with stem cells from a baby’s umbilical cord after he received radiation and chemotherapy to eradicate the cancer. The hope was that the stem cells would locate into his bone marrow and produce new and healthy white-blood cells. Because a baby has fewer stem cells than a 15-year-old boy, the cells had to be cloned. Nuechterlein became the 4th patient in the world to have cloned stem cells from cord blood inserted into his body. During this time, his immune system was erased. For about two years, he ingested a cocktail of about 30 drugs, three times per day to keep away infections. He was so weak that he struggled walking up a single flight of stairs. It was a drastic change from where he was at age 13, when he completed his first triathlon.

At age 18, he left the hospital healthy and on his way to join the ranks of fellow freshmen at the University of Colorado Denver. He vowed to one-day return to Children’s Hospital Colorado, not as a patient, but as a physician’s assistant.

Nuechterlein went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Colorado Denver and then graduated from PA school in 2009. He now works in the Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Program, the same center where he was treated almost two decades ago.

His personal experience battling leukemia gives him credibility when he talks to patients and families, he said. “This costs me nothing, and it gives the parents hope big time,” he said. “They’re the ones that read the 100-page consent form that says your child can die of this, this and this, and even if they survive they can have brain damage.”

The chances of Nuechterlein’s leukemia resurfacing are slim. But those harrowing years taught him more than any medical textbook ever could.

“Cancer teaches you to not sweat the small stuff,” he said. “It really shows you what’s important in life.”

What’s important to him right now is raising money for the bone marrow transplant center that saved his life, through the hospital’s 24th annual Courage Classic bike ride. Because of budget cuts, federal and state funding for cancer research is on hiatus. Last year, Nuechterlein and his team of cyclists raised $300,000 for the Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Program. This year, he hopes to raise about $400,000 — bringing his team’s total donation to the hospital’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders to more than $2 million — and cross the finish line with his entire family. Relying on them, and the friends, lawyers and doctors he rides with, makes the challenge of riding over rough terrain a bit less extreme. That’s also how he felt in the throes of cancer. Support was key.

“Having all that pain tends to make people short-fused and you tend to push people away,” he said. “But that’s where all your strength comes from. You can’t be on your own, and that’s what the classic is all about. It’s about helping people finish that race.”

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]

To donate

To donate to Brandon’s team, visit couragetours.com/2013/cruisingforcancer; his rider number is 1222.

Funds raised will go toward Children’s Hospital Colorado Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. Deadline for donations is Aug. 31.