John Volenski holds a bit of fame among cancer survivors.
The Mattawan, Michigan, resident has the honor of being the 200th patient of the Spectrum Health blood and bone marrow transplant program, which launched in February 2013.
Despite his 15 seconds of limelight appearing on WWMT-TV 3 news as “No. 200” when he had a stem cell transplant on New Year’s Day, Volenski is more impressed with his healthy new beginning.
“They showed my picture and that was it,” Volenski said of the news broadcast. “I was proud of my doctor.”
That doctor is Stephanie Williams, MD, division chief for the blood and bone marrow transplant program at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center.
Volenski says it’s because of her that he can look forward to resuming golf and bowling this summer, and fishing with his grandson.
Volenski’s cancer score card begins back in February 2015. He had trouble walking and bending his leg. He thought he had injured his leg, pulled a muscle or something. Gradually, it worsened. He sought medical advice.
X-rays showed what appeared to be a hole in his bone. Blood tests confirmed the thundering gutter-ball-like news: Cancer.
“Come to find out, I had myeloma in my leg,” said Volenski, 69. “It was kind of a shock. It doesn’t run in my family. I’m the only one. I have seven sisters and one brother.”
In March, a Kalamazoo-area surgeon put a rod down his femur to stabilize his bone and he began chemotherapy the following month. The cancer can cause bones to thin, which appears as a hole on X-rays.
Volenski also developed amyloidosis, a rare disease that occurs when amyloid proteins build up in organs.
His doctor referred him to the Spectrum Health Cancer Center and Dr. Williams, who scheduled a stem cell transplant for Dec. 31.
A ray of hope
“I saw it as a ray of hope,” Volenski said. “You get hooked up to a machine, which draws your blood off and separates the cells from the blood.”
After stem cell extraction, Volenski underwent chemotherapy to kill off his immune system.
“It even kills off any shots you’ve had, like the flu shot,” he said. “You’re defenseless against even a cold. The next day, they put all of your good stem cells back in your body.”
But Volenski’s amyloidosis grew worse. He dropped from 190 to 130 pounds.
“After the transplant I ended up back in the hospital because of malnutrition,” he said. “They had to put me on feed bags to get my nutrition back up and my weight back up.”
Fortunately, Volenski’s health turned around. His stem cells started regenerating on their own and he’s back up to about 150 pounds.
“So far, it’s worked really well,” he said.
After being confined to his home for 60 days after transplant to protect his fragile immune system, recent blood tests have confirmed the transplant’s effectiveness.
A milestone marker
“It’s going in the right direction and it’s happening pretty quickly and I’m doing pretty good,” Volenski said. “I’m feeling stronger and I think I’m going to be off medications in about a month.”
There’s something else to celebrate—he crossed the 100-day milestone marker in mid-April.
“At 100 days they say you should be almost completely recovered,” he said. “I’m going to celebrate by going for a walk.”
And soon, he’ll resume his other loves. The 200-average bowler said he plans to pick up a ball again and visit the lanes next month.
“I haven’t bowled in more than a year so I don’t have an average anymore,” he said. “But it feels good to get out again.”
He’s booking his schedule, with fun things, not cancer things—fishing and golfing with his 16-year-old grandson, Bryce. Working in the yard. Long walks. Watching granddaughter Baylee’s soccer games.
“Just this last month I’ve been able to go to a few of her games,” he said. “It feels great to get out there, watch her and support her.”
Volenski said he approached his cancer and recovery like he does everything else in life.
“I just take it in stride and look for the best things,” he said. “If you get in a difficult situation, just do the best you can. I just went after this like everything else I do in life. Full bore.”
Dr. Williams said she’s pleased with the way Volenski is progressing.
“It was an up and down course, but he’s doing well,” Dr. Williams said. “We see him every couple of weeks. Pretty soon, we’ll spread that out a little bit more.”
His prognosis is like Volenski’s bowling average—very good.
“Hopefully he’ll hit the golf course soon,” Dr. Williams said. “He loves to golf.”
Without the blood and bone marrow transplant in place, Volenski likely would have had to travel to Detroit or Chicago for the transplant as well as follow-up appointments.
“It was pretty quick that we reached patient No. 200 from only February 2013 until the end of 2015,” Dr. Williams said. “We’re able to keep patients in the community rather than them having to travel to get these transplants done.”