If a doctor said you had three years to live, what would run through your mind?
For Mel Mann, the thought was instantaneous. It was of his daughter, Patrice, who was just 5 years old at the time.
“I was in shock. My first thought was that my daughter would be 8 when my time was up,” recalls Mann.
That was all the motivation he needed to exhaust every option in overcoming his diagnosis.
In 1995, Mann had been dealing with excruciating, consistent back pain while working in research and development as a U.S. Army officer near Detroit. Thinking it was a herniated disk, he sought medical treatment, eager to put a stop to the pain. A series of tests, including an MRI, showed that his bone marrow appeared abnormal for a man of his age. He was 37.
The doctor ordered a blood test. His white blood cell count was 132,000. A normal range for a healthy adult is 4,500 to 11,000.
Soon after, an oncologist confirmed the diagnosis: chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).
“The doctor explained that my best chance at beating leukemia was to find a bone marrow match from a close family member,” says Mann. “But none of my relatives were a match. My next option was to add my name to the national bone marrow registry, but at the time, African Americans had a 1 percent chance of finding a match because there were so few donors available. I asked him if there was anything else I could do, like diet or exercise. He said no – my best chance at living would be to find a donor.”
Without a donor at the ready, Mann got to work. In his mind, the more blood donations he could collect from the Black community, the better his odds would be at finding a match. If he couldn’t find one, then at least he’d be improving the odds for future leukemia patients. He contacted the different Army bases where he had been stationed, churches in the Detroit area and other organizations to run blood marrow drives.
Because of his diagnosis, he was released from his duties as an officer and placed on medical retirement. Mann was then able to dedicate even more of his time to hosting marrow drives, one of which was attended by a stranger who arrived with a message for Mann.
“He saw a promotion for the marrow drive on TV and took it upon himself to come all the way to help me,” says Mann. “He told me he had hairy cell leukemia, which is a different form of cancer than mine, and had entered into clinical trials to try experimental drugs. It turned his life around. His blood cell count was low and he was feeling great. Meanwhile, my cancer cells were multiplying. I called his doctor and asked how I could get involved right away.”
Mann became one of the first trial patients for Imatinib mesylate, or Gleevec, a chemotherapy drug that inhibits the protein that allows cancerous CML cells to grow and multiply. After months of trials, his doctor found the right dosage to stabilize Mann’s white blood cell count. He felt better and stronger every day. Within a year, he ran a marathon to fundraise for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The organization's support was critical in helping advance research leading to the development and eventual approval of this lifesaving drug.
Today, 20 years after Gleevec was officially approved by the FDA, Mann is the longest Gleevec survivor with CML in the world.
Patrice has quite the story herself. Now 31, she is a medical school graduate and psychiatrist working at Emory University in Atlanta. After accompanying her father on clinical trial trips and dozens of marrow drives, plus enduring the marrow donor test to see if she could be a match, Mann can’t help but think his journey might have inspired her career.
“She likes to help people,” says Mann. Like father, like daughter.