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Olympian Earl Young’s Journey Through Acute Myeloid Leukemia

“When people ask me why they should become a donor and if there’s any risk involved, all I can tell them is: ‘You risk never being able to save a life.’”

Earl Young
Acute Myeloid Leukemia AML

Winning a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics is a life-defining achievement. For Earl Young, however, the greatest joy of his life wouldn’t come until five decades – and one cancer diagnosis – later. As the recipient of a life-saving bone marrow transplant, Young found new purpose in his cancer experience, and committed himself to helping save other lives and defeating blood cancer through donor awareness.

On September 16, 2011, Earl saw his doctor about a sniffle and cough he couldn’t shake. Because it had been a few years since his last visit, his doctor ran tests to get a closer look at Earl’s health. The tests revealed he was not producing white blood cells. A bone marrow biopsy helped confirm the diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia, with an initial life expectancy of three months.

“My doctor told me that we can do three things,” Young said. “The first is to do nothing. Second, they could put me on medication and start chemotherapy to see how long we can get. Or, we can try a bone marrow transplant. I told him we needed to go for it.”

Under the care of Dr. Estil Vance, Texas Oncology–Medical City Dallas Blood and Marrow Transplant, Young began chemotherapy and the search for a bone marrow donor. After briefly undergoing treatment, he was in luck.

“Interestingly enough, just two weeks prior, a woman in Germany became a donor,” Young said. “Out of 22 million people, she was the only perfect match. She’s the only one that could save my life.”

He then started on the road back to recovery.

“There’s no question that my athletic background had an impact not only on my life – but my recovery as well,” Young said. “You learn to push a little harder. When you choose to train, you get to learn things in life that some people don’t get to learn.”

It will soon be eight years since Young received his second chance at life from his donor, with whom he remains in close contact. He is managing graft versus host disease (GvHD), but considers himself very fortunate.

“It takes my energy away some days, but not my optimism,” he said.

Having a previously anonymous donor help save his life inspired Young to truly embrace ‘being your brother’s keeper.’ Four years ago, he launched a donor awareness non-profit, Earl Young’s team to help spread the word about the need for donors. Traveling around the country, he has helped register more than 14,000 donors and given 38 lives a second chance.

“We’re all human. We’ve all got fears and our own priorities,” Earl said. “But when people ask me why they should become a donor and if there’s any risk involved, all I can tell them is: ‘You risk never being able to save a life.’”

The information included in this testimonial is based on one patient’s unique experience and is not intended to represent all patient outcomes or expectations.