PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Terry Killman had anticipated being a little emotional on Friday. After all, he had a lot to celebrate: After having battled cancer for the past three years, he was finally set to graduate with a bachelor of science degree from Pittsburg State University.
'It's an achievement that I didn't think I was going to get," he said.
Killman, 48, of Independence, Kan., was one of more than 500 students who were eligible to participate in fall commencement exercises Friday night at Pitt State. He said receiving his degree is all the more meaningful because of the health issues he has faced in recent years.
Killman, a Carthage native, enrolled at Pitt State in 2009 after moving back to the Four States Area from Chicago, where he had been stationed at the Great Lakes naval station. Retired after 20 years in the U.S. Navy, he had his tuition covered through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
He chose vocational education as his field of study, having been a diesel mechanic and a mechanics teacher for the military. He was commuting 60 miles to and from the Pittsburg campus, spending more time in his vehicle than in the classroom, but he was enjoying his studies.
Going back to school as a non-traditional student wasn't a problem for Killman, who said his Navy service helped him prepare for the university atmosphere and workload.
'Out of high school, I don't think I would have done well in college, but after the 20 years in the Navy, I had matured enough to do what I needed to do to get the grades I needed," he said. 'I feel (going back to school) was easier than I thought it would be."
But a year after beginning his studies, Killman said he was frequently tired and listless, and doctors tested him for a range of illnesses, including Lyme disease and spinal meningitis. Blood tests eventually revealed that he had chronic myeloid leukemia, a cancer that starts inside bone marrow, according to the National Institute of Health.
'It was kind of a shock," Killman said. 'But the doctor assured us it was treatable and everything would be OK. Me and my wife, we just kind of took it in stride."
He said he started medications to treat the illness, but his body resisted. He was then diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that begins in the bone marrow and moves into one's blood. According to the American Cancer Society, this type of cancer can progress quickly and can be fatal within a few months if it's not treated.
The proposed treatment was a bone marrow transplant. The procedure restores a patient's stem cells by giving him or her the harvested cells from another individual, according to the National Cancer Institute. The new cells then travel to the patient's bone marrow and begin to produce new blood cells, the institute said.
Killman said he was fortunate that his older brother, Vic, was a stem cell match. In January 2011, Killman withdrew temporarily from his studies at Pitt State to undergo the transplant.
During the procedure, Killman was given chemotherapy treatments that essentially killed his own cancerous bone marrow and stem cells, he said. Meanwhile, stem cells harvested from his brother were transferred to his body. The process, he said, required a four-month stay in a local hospital so his body could become accustomed to the new cells.
'It's like being born again, honestly," he said of the procedure. 'Your immune system starts completely all over again. I've had to have my baby shots all over again and everything."
The transplant has so far proved to be a success. Killman said he has had a few minor health issues Ñ kidney problems, a disease in the lymph nodes of his lungs Ñ that were induced by the chemotherapy, but he's not too concerned.
'That's just little stuff," he said.