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Cancer Stories: Dr. Keith Eaton

March 24, 2015

Dr. Keith Eaton reflects upon his cancer journey, both as a doctor treating patients with cancer and through his own experience with leukemia.

At the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Dr. Keith Eaton is known among staff as a kind and patient doctor.  Offering lighthearted jokes and often smiling, his positive outlook is constant even as he recounts the hardest parts of his own journey with cancer.  Three years ago, Dr. Eaton was diagnosed with leukemia and was given less than a five percent chance of survival.  Today, he is still smiling, and he jokes, “I was kind of like Harry Potter — I was the boy who lived.”

Dr. Eaton meets with a patient

Initially in graduate school to become a physicist, Dr. Eaton soon realized that his calling was medicine.  “As I got deeper and deeper into physics, what I realized was the sense of helping someone was really important to me.”  Growing up, his childhood heroes were Einstein and Gandhi, and in his current roles as a clinician and researcher, he is able to exercise both a scientific intellectual curiosity and a desire to connect with people.  In graduate school, he met wife Danielle, who was also studying medicine; her picture and those of their two daughters adorn his office walls.

Resources for patients and their loved ones:

Learn more about CAR T-Cell Therapy.

Learn more about bone marrow transplants.

Discover how Cord blood transplants offer hope for those who cannot find a bone marrow donor match.

Search the National Cancer Institute’s list of 12,000+ clinical trials now accepting participants.

In October 2012, Dr. Eaton began experiencing a set of symptoms, including fatigue and hip and chest pain, and he had a sinking feeling that he had leukemia.  Test results confirmed his self-diagnosis, with chromosomal abnormalities placing him into lower and lower survival categories.  Dr. Eaton now found himself in the role of cancer patient, being treated by his longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Mike Linenberger.  Immediately placed on chemotherapy, Dr. Eaton went through a series of six different chemotherapies in total, all of them proving unsuccessful in reducing the cancer into remission.

With chemotherapy offering little remedy, Dr. Eaton’s care team searched for experimental therapies, and the field of immunotherapy offered a new possibility.  Based at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Carl June and his team of researchers had been developing CAR T-Cell Therapy, a form of immunotherapy in which a patient’s own T lymphocytes are extracted, re-engineered, and then infused back into the patient to attack and kill leukemia cells.  Dr. Eaton went to Philadelphia in early 2013 to receive the therapy, spending two months inpatient and developing severe, but predicted, side effects, including several bouts of fevers with temperatures as high as 106 degrees Fahrenheit.  Miraculously, the cancer was reduced to undetectable levels.  Dr. Eaton was the first adult with acute lymphoblastic leukemia to be treated with CAR T-Cell Therapy.

Dr. Eaton with his brother and bone marrow donor Jeff

To strengthen the chances of long-term remission, Dr. Eaton also received a bone marrow transplant, based upon the recommendations of his care team in Seattle.  On May 30, 2013 at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, he received bone marrow cells from his brother, Jeff.  From his initial grim prognosis, Dr. Eaton’s current prognosis has completely turned for the better. Today, he can cautiously and optimistically say, “From a relapse standpoint, I wouldn’t say I’m in the clear, but I’m in pretty good shape.”

Dr. Eaton’s reflective nature offers a glimpse of the difficulties he has endured as a cancer doctor and cancer patient, but always through a positive lens.  He recounts that the most difficult part of his job lies in helping patients for whom there is no cure in sight. But in those circumstances, he says, “I can still give them something. I try to focus on trying to help people the best way I can, even if cancer will still be a part of them lifelong.”  He has always felt sympathetic for his patients, and now is able to truly be empathetic.  Dr. Eaton expresses gratitude every day, and even more so as a result of his personal cancer journey: “It’s just kind of overwhelming; in a way, you don’t feel like you can thank people enough.”Dr. Eaton and family summer of 2014




Made possible in part by

Aileen Imperial

Aileen Imperial is a multimedia and documentary producer with a commitment to thoughtful observation and engagement. Her work has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, PBS NewsHour, and she is a 4-time Emmy winner for feature videos in the Arts, Culture, and Human Interest. Find her on Twitter: @imperealize

More stories by Aileen Imperial

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A good attitude and excellent research goes a long way!