Stranger’s life-saving gift puts GR man back in the race

Man with rare blood cancer returns to Fifth Third River Bank Run

Perry Cheathem trains for Fifth Third River Bank Run's 10k event. (May 10, 2016)


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids man who feared his running days were over will be back toeing the line of the Fifth Third River Bank Run Saturday, thanks to a stranger’s life-saving gift.

Perry Cheathem had participated in the Fifth Third River Bank Run and other races for nearly a decade. Then in August 2014, something changed.

“I ran the Crim, the Flint Crim, and I kept slowing down each mile and I wasn’t sweating, Cheathem said. “The next couple of days I started to swell up, and that’s when I knew something wasn’t right.”

A second trip to the emergency room resulted in a quick yet frightening diagnosis for Cheathem.

Perry Cheathem trains for Fifth Third River Bank Run's 10k event. (May 10, 2016)
Perry Cheathem trains for Fifth Third River Bank Run’s 10k event. (May 10, 2016)

“They did a biopsy of some of my lymph nodes and they concluded it was cancer,” he explained.

Cheathem had T-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which is a rare form of blood cancer.

“One of the first things the doctors tell you is not to look it up on the Internet. Of course, that’s the first thing I do,” said Cheathem.

“It’s scary,” said Cheathem’s wife, Chris. “I think he’s had some pretty hard days and it’s been tough.”

The prognosis wasn’t good; Cheathem said his chances of survival were very, very low.

Perry Cheathem takes a break from training for Fifth Third River Bank Run's 10k event. (May 10, 2016)
Perry Cheathem takes a break from training for Fifth Third River Bank Run’s 10k event. (May 10, 2016)

He went through nearly a year of chemotherapy and nearly lost a leg from an infection his depleted immune system couldn’t fight. Cheathem’s last hope was a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.

“For these patients that need these bone marrow transplants, about 70 percent of the patients are not going to find a matching donor in their family,” said Caitlin Regan with Michigan Blood.

Without a family match, Cheathem turned to Michigan Blood and national bone marrow registry, Be The Match.

On June 9, Cheathem hit a turning point in his fight against cancer.

Perry Cheathem talks to a group of students about the Be The Match bone marrow registry program.
Perry Cheathem talks to a group of students about the Be The Match bone marrow registry program.

“I got a stem cell transplant and it was donated,” he said. “I’d never heard of this Be The Match and it saved my life.”

With his cancer now in remission, Cheathem speaks on the behalf of Be The Match, sharing his story in hopes of getting more potential donors to register and save others’ lives, especially with his ethnic background.

“As it stands, the registry is comprised of about 70 percent Caucasian donors and about 6 percent African-American,” Regan explained. “The reason that’s troublesome is that most of the patients are going to match someone of their same ethnic background, so there’s simply not enough potential donors for these patients.”

Cheathem has another goal. A year after loved ones ran the Fifth Third River Bank Run in his honor, he’s pushing his body again to run Saturday’s 10k event.

Friends and family ran the Fifth Third River Bank Run on Cheathem's behalf in 2015. (Courtesy photo)
Friends and family ran the Fifth Third River Bank Run on Cheathem’s behalf in 2015. (Courtesy photo)

“[I] just want to finish. That’s my goal,” Cheatem said.

Legally, Cheathem cannot even request to meet his donor until one year after his bone marrow transplant. He told 24 Hour News a he will make that request the first day he’s allowed to, in hopes of thanking the person who saved his life.


Online:

Be The Match donor registry – https://bethematch.org/

Michigan Blood – http://www.miblood.org/

Fifth Third River Bank Run – https://www.53riverbankrun.com/

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