Leukemia was no match for Jason’s physical and mental toughness.
Stem cell transplantation may be a fairly common procedure, but the way Jason Mounts approached it was anything but.
His journey started in the fall of 2019, when the 40-year-old attorney, Army National Guard captain and avid runner was down with what seemed like the flu. When he noticed a rash on his leg, Jason went to the nearest emergency room. A blood test revealed an unusually high white blood cell count, which in turn led to a leukemia diagnosis.
Jason found himself at UPMC Shadyside under the care of Alison Sehgal, MD, a UPMC Hillman Cancer Center medical oncologist and hematologist. After several rounds of chemotherapy, she decided Jason was a good candidate for a stem cell transplant, which would replace his blood cells with those of a healthy donor. It would be his best chance for a total recovery.
“A month or two before I was diagnosed,” he recalls, “I was in charge of my National Guard unit’s live-fire drills on a mile-long wooded course. I put in 16 miles a day, sometimes in full kit. I was in the absolute best shape of my life. And two months later I was sick.”
He’d read about the relationship between muscle mass and recovery in chemo, so he knew the importance of staying active. “During my chemo treatment,” he says, “I tried to find a gym, some place to exercise in the hospital. They kept telling me there wasn't one there. Eventually I found the cardiac gym and got permission to work out there. I’d go down once or twice a day, walking in the morning and lifting weights at night.”
Two of Jason’s sisters were tested to find a donor for his stem cell transplant, along with his four double first cousins. His sister closest in age, Erin, was a perfect match. “She took some meds beforehand,” Jason says, “and then they did a blood draw and turned it into something that was going to keep me healthy.”
After his procedure in May 2020, delayed six weeks because of COVID-19, Jason was isolated in his room. “I asked if I could bring in some weights,” he recalls. “I don't think they understood what I had in mind, because I showed up with dumbbells from 15 up to 50 pounds, plus kettlebells, a pull-up bar, push-up bars and resistance bands. It took three trips with a borrowed wheelchair.”
Jason was more than just okay with the care he received during his stay. “The nurses were unbelievable. Professional, personable. knowledgeable, attentive. They see hundreds of people there and they care about each individual patient, and it really shows. If I needed them, they were right there. They‘d sit and answer every question I had. A group of them did CrossFit together, and another group ran together. So we talked about that. About a month ago I went back for an appointment at Hillman, and I brought cards because I felt I hadn't expressed thanks adequately in the two years since. They all remembered me, and it was awesome.”
As for the research being conducted at UPMC Hillman, Jason says, “As a cancer patient, it means the world to know that there are people out there fighting for you, putting their time and their energy into helping you. When my dad’s cousin died of leukemia 50 years ago, the mortality rate was around 80%. Now it’s a fraction of that, thanks to dramatic advances in medical science and care. These doctors and scientists are closer than they've ever been to finding a cure.”
He plans to ride in the inaugural Rush to Crush Cancer this spring, and he thinks the idea of linking fundraising into physical activity is a “great way to build community. It gets you pumped up and it's really motivating to know that a lot of people are going to come out and show their support this way. I’ll need to work up to 40 miles, but I’m really looking forward to it.”