Cancer clinical trial helps local father of four

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Kirk Wilkerson looks to be the picture of health. He's a smiling, fit, father-of-four, who coaches football at his high school alma mater in Rutherford County. He's a positive person. Yet, a few weeks after completing a marathon last year, Wilkerson received disturbing news.

"I felt good," said Wilkerson. "So, it kind of came out left field a little bit."

He was shaken by the results of lab work performed during a life insurance policy update. A certain protein in Wilkerson's blood was elevated, called an "M-spike." Wilkerson was told he should consult with a doctor.

That was the beginning of the Wilkerson family's cancer journey. Wilkerson was fortunate. All signs indicated his stage of the blood cancer, multiple myeloma, was smoldering. Left untreated, it would likely evolve into active multiple myeloma.

His wife, Cindy, shared how they first dealt with the diagnosis. "You go through different phases, somewhat like grief," said Cindy. "You want as much information as you can get, at first. Then you stop and think about what could this mean for our family."

Wilkerson's odds looked good. Then, a month later, more testing showed protein levels in his blood increased dramatically. Wilkerson's multiple-myeloma was still smoldering, but had progressed into a high-risk category.

"When you have four kids and you're 48; you've got a lot of life in front of you. Your perspective on things changes when something like this happens," said Wilkerson. He and Cindy said they prayed about their options and decided a clinical trial was their best course.

Wilkerson could not have been in better hands at that moment. His physician, Dr. Saad Usmani, is Chief of Plasma Cell Disorders & the Director of Clinical Research at Levine Cancer Institute at Carolinas Healthcare System.

He has built the research and treatment program of blood cancers at LCI, which includes more patient access to clinical trials.

Wilkerson's two-year trial explores the effect of giving patients with smoldering multiple-myeloma the same treatment as someone with active myeloma.

"The thought process used to be, don't treat myeloma patients in they are asymptomatic," said Dr. Usmani. "If they don't have any symptoms, continue to watch them until they have a symptom," he said.

It was a perfect match medically. Later, they would find out it was a perfect match personally, too.

After a tri-layered approach of medications, including chemotherapy, Wilkerson's lab work dramatically improved during the clinical trial. His disease moved back down to the low-risk category.

"If we can turn his disease into a holding pattern for an extended period of time, that will be a win-win for us," said the doctor.

The family rejoiced. Wilkerson and Dr. Usmani started to make plans which would take the patient-doctor relationship beyond the hospital campus.

"As soon as he said, 'Mount Everest,' I said, 'Heck yeah, I'm in.'" said Wilkerson.

The two are training to climb Mount Everest next March. The climb will benefit and raise awareness for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.

Wilkerson smiles at the idea of the metaphors in their relationship. The climb represents moving mountains, an uphill battle to fight cancer, the teamwork between doctor and patient.

"He's an amazing person. We come from very different backgrounds, both globally and in life. But it's really neat how we've become very good friends," said Wilkerson about his doctor.

"He's a very special kind of a guy. And I hope we have a long-lasting friendship," said Dr. Usmani about his patient.

"Kirk has set a very high bar for me," said Dr. Usmani, smiling about their training schedule for the climb.

Cancer was the genesis of their bond, but there's more to it now. The football coach leaned on his doctor through a tough diagnosis. The doctor is getting coached by his patient through a mentally and physically grueling challenge.

They are one of three doctor/patient teams climbing Mt. Everest in the "Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma" challenge. They will hike nearly 38 miles uphill to a base camp.

For comparison, North Carolina's highest peak is Mount Mitchell with an elevation of 6684 feet. The Mt. Everest base camp climb will take them to an elevation of 19,000 feet, says Wilkerson. For more information on their team's progress and the organization that supports multiple myeloma research, click here:

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