50 Phenoms: How a Veteran Stayed Strong When Facing Leukemia

When Jason Mounts needed a stem cell transplant to treat his leukemia, he went to the hospital prepared.

As someone who leads an active lifestyle, Jason wanted to keep up with his workouts. And with COVID-19 protocols limiting his in-hospital options, he had to get creative.

Jason brought dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, and even an adjustable pull-up bar to set up a miniature gym in his hospital room. The hospital even provided him with a treadmill from its cardiac rehabilitation gym.

“All the nurses had never really seen anything like that before,” Jason says. “They didn’t think I was crazy, but it was definitely unusual. Even then, seemed to think that it was a good idea.”

Staying active during his hospital stay helped Jason both physically and mentally. Working out allowed him to focus on something other than his cancer.

Jason, who had a stem cell transplant in May 2020, is now healthy — and still very active.

“Nothing focuses you like facing your own death as a very imminent and probable eventuality,” he says. “It made me want to be just as good a person as I possibly could be. It makes you want to live as fully as you possibly can.”

‘It’s Not Leukemia. It’s Going to Be Something Else.’

Jason has worked several different jobs in the United States Army and is an officer in the National Guard. He has always made physical fitness a high priority.

But in late October 2019, he began feeling off.

During a workout with a friend, Jason wasn’t as energetic as usual. The next day, at the gym, Jason still felt lethargic.

“I just thought I had a bad cold,” he says. “A lot of people around me had a cold that they just couldn’t kick. I just assumed that it was the same thing. ”

Jason’s symptoms hung around for more than a month, progressively getting worse. In late November, after a drill weekend with the Army National Guard, Jason noticed he had bruising he couldn’t explain and bleeding that was difficult to stop. He also had a “nasty rash” on his leg.

When the rash didn’t improve, Jason went to an emergency department.

“They did blood work, and within an hour or two, they started throwing around the word ‘leukemia,'” Jason says. “And I’m the opposite of an alarmist. I was like, ‘It’s not leukemia. It’s going to be something else. They’re going to find out what this is. They’re going to fix it. I will be on my way.'”

However, tests confirmed the doctors’ initial diagnosis: He had acute myeloid leukemia.

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‘How Do I Maximize Life?’

Acute myeloid leukemia typically forms in the bone marrow. A mutation in a blood stem cell causes an immature white blood cell, or a myeloblast, to form. This abnormal cell forms into a leukemia cell that grows and divides rapidly, crowding out healthy cells in the process.

Because the cancer grows and develops quickly, people with AML often have symptoms like fatigue or fever and a high white blood cell counts.

“Unlike chronic leukemias that will develop over years before people have symptoms, most people know they have acute leukemia very quickly,” says Alison Sehgal, MD, a hematologist and medical oncologist at UPMC and Jason’s doctor. “It’s not the kind of fatigue you can ignore. It’s somewhat obvious when you have it.”

AML is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults. It can be difficult to treat and cure, but new therapies have improved outcomes.

Jason felt “a mixture of emotions” when he heard the diagnosis.

“It’s a very earth-shattering piece of news to get,” he says. “Everything that you are used to doing, everything changes, and it takes on a new priority. Getting used to what was going to have to happen in order for life to continue was a huge adjustment.

“My thoughts were, ‘How do we do it? How do we make this happen? How do we get me healthy? How do I return to what I was before? How do I maximize life? How do I get as much as most out of life as I possibly can after this?'”

After his diagnosis, Jason was transferred to UPMC Shadyside to begin a regimen of chemotherapy.

Dr. Sehgal says Jason had three strong qualities as a patient: positivity, inquisitiveness, and motivation.

“He wanted to try to stay as healthy as he could,” Dr. Sehgal says. “That was very meaningful for him and helped him maximize how he felt during treatment.”

When he first arrived at the hospital, Jason actually didn’t feel like doing much physically. But soon, his motivation to be active kicked in.

“Being in the Army, being in the infantry, is a very physical job,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle that you kind of have to adopt, and you get used to it. It’s a habit.”

He asked his care team whether there was a gym in the hospital. Eventually, he located a cardiac rehab gym in a nearby building and was allowed to work out there.

He would go to the gym every day, even dragging his IV pole — “his tall, skinny girlfriend” — through the halls at UPMC Shadyside. He would also do pushups or pull-ups in his room while the chemotherapy drugs flowed into his body. When not connected to his IV, Jason could leave the hospital and walk the streets of Oakland.

The exercise helped him overcome both the physical and mental effects of his disease.

“It was a way to kind of shake my fist at the great unknown,” he says. “You can put chemo in me, but I’m still going to live my life.

“It was a habit that I inculcated in myself for a long, long time,” he says. “So being able to continue working out was a huge mental boost. I mean, it’s something to look forward to rather than to sit and stare at the wall or stare out the window.”

‘She Literally Saved My Life’

After a five-week stay in the hospital for the first round of chemotherapy, Jason went home on Christmas Day 2019. He continued with chemotherapy, but the doctors said he needed a stem cell transplant.

Stem cell transplants are an option for patients with AML if their cancer is unlikely to be cured by chemotherapy alone and they are in good overall health. Since Jason fit those characteristics, he was a candidate for the treatment.

“I was happy that there was an answer, a cure, and a solution,” Jason says. “It would have been a lot harder to deal with if there hadn’t been. But if they said chemotherapy is the best that we can do, I would have accepted that as well.

“To be honest with you, there was never really a time throughout all this where I was down or depressed or just kind of beat up. I’ve been pretty hopeful and pretty upbeat throughout the process.”

The stem cell transplant process includes intense chemotherapy to wipe out existing stem cells, followed by a transplant from a matched donor.

Doctors tested Jason’s family members and his oldest sister matched.

Jason’s transplant was scheduled for mid-March 2020, but it was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He reported to the hospital in April to prepare for the transplant.

He brought his makeshift gym with him, using a wheelchair to ferry the weights to his room. And the cardiac rehab gym where he worked out during his initial round of chemotherapy supplied a treadmill for his room.

On days when his platelet count was low, Jason couldn’t work out because of possible complications. Dr. Sehgal says staying active can help with recovery, minimizing or preventing issues like muscle loss. And she believes it also helps patients mentally.

“Frankly, I think the mental benefits are equal to or greater than the physical ones,” Dr. Sehgal says. “Making sure you have something to do every day and feeling as normal as you can, you don’t feel like you’re just a patient — you feel like yourself.”

After going through chemotherapy to wipe out his immune system, doctors took his sister’s stem cells and transplanted into Jason on May 5, 2020 — Cinco de Mayo, he remembers fondly.

“It was pretty incredible,” he says. “Not only that she would be willing to, but she was able to, that she had the opportunity to help me, and that she was just so into doing it. She was incredibly excited to do it, and she literally saved my life. So, I will be forever grateful for her for that.

“We’ve always been close. My entire family has been … just everyone across the board. It’s a pretty special thing.”

Facing Leukemia: ‘A Good Way to Experience the Good Things in Life’

Jason remained in the hospital for a few weeks after his stem cell transplant before returning home. It took several months for his full strength to return.

By April 2021 — a year post-transplant — Jason started feeling “pretty darn good.”

More than two years after his original diagnosis, Jason is in remission. He visits UPMC for follow-up appointments to monitor his health.

“I’m still on some meds and that kind of thing, but I feel fantastic,” he says. “Like, I feel, I’d say about one to two percent better every week.”

Jason remains in the Army National Guard and recently opened his own law firm.

Because he is high-risk for some infections, Jason has to avoid certain activities. But he continues to go to the gym and work out in other ways. He and his sister were signed up to run the Pittsburgh Marathon in May 2021, but the race was cancelled because of COVID restrictions.

Jason says members of his family — his parents, three sisters — his extended family and his National Guard unit helped him get through his journey. So did his faith and the support of his care team at UPMC.

“Being diagnosed with leukemia is a very spiritual experience,” Jason says. “It’s a very good way to experience and pursue the ineffable and the good things in life. It’s a good way to focus on relationships, to focus on family, and to focus on just giving your all to your work, to your own development, whether it’s your intellect or your moral development. It’s a good kind of kick in the pants to do that.”

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.