Beating the odds in battle against rare blood cancer

Valeriy and Tatyana Sukach
Valeriy Sukach with his wife, Tatyana

Valeriy Sukach is a fighter. Ten years ago he was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer that is almost universally fatal.

But with the help of good medicine, a strong faith and prayers from his family and friends, Sukach beat the odds and is now cancer-free.

“I am enjoying life,” he said. “I am back to working as a gardener, and everything is nice. I get to spend time with my family, and I am sleeping and eating well.”

In 2008, the 57-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma after a surgeon removed a growth near his eye, which turned out to be malignant. The disease had progressed to lymph nodes, and he was admitted to UC Davis Medical Center for tumor-removal surgeries and then to the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center for chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

The cancer disappeared for a while, and life returned to normal for Sukach and his family. Unfortunately the disease returned in 2010, and his doctors decided it was time to find a suitable donor of hematopoietic stem cells.

“After that, I say, I am ready for everything,” he recalled of his decision to undergo the most aggressive treatment. “I am not scared. I am Christian, and I believe in God. And, a lot of people pray for me in my church.”

Replacing his own hematopoietic stem cells, which are made in the bone marrow and responsible for producing all the components of the blood and much of the immune system, gave Sukach the best chance for a cure. A worldwide search was initiated to find a suitable donor who had a compatible immune system.

Fortunately, an excellent match was found in a 55-year-old Austrian man. To prepare for the procedure, Sukach underwent high-dose chemotherapy to destroy his own stem cell production. In September 2011, Joseph Tuscano, a medical oncologist and member of the stem cell transplant team, performed the procedure to transplant the donor stem cells into Sukach, restoring his own blood-cell production system.

Today, Sukach lives with his family in West Sacramento. When he’s not working, he enjoys fishing for salmon and trout at Lake Almanor and Lake Camanche. He also loves spending time with his extended family, especially his five grandchildren who range in age from 4 to 13 years old.

“They give me energy,” he said. “Every day I go to my daughter’s house, and I love seeing my grandchildren.”

Sukach has also become a guide for others within his immigrant community for whom a diagnosis of cancer seems too frightening or costly to confront. He explains to them that he is grateful for the excellent medical care he received from UC Davis, and thankful that he’s alive today.

“I am thankful to God, and I appreciate everything that UC Davis has done to help me,” he said. “Thank you for treating my cancer.”

Learn more about the stem cell transplant program at UC Davis