SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — At 20 years old, Joe Kelley of Novato has had more health scares than many people who live to be 90.
Kelley has had the same cancer, Burkitt’s lymphoma, three times. The first time was in 2002 when he was five. Next was in 2008 when he was 10. The third time he was 17 years old and a junior at Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield.
Kelley says doctors at University of California, San Francisco felt something bigger was going on with him. “By the third time it hit, that’s too much. Something’s wrong” said Kelley.
Doctors took six months to genotype his DNA and found out he had a rare immune system disorder called X-linked lymphoproliferative disease or XLP and would need a bone marrow transplant.
“When I asked about pediatric survival rates of bone marrow transplants they didn’t even tell me cause they didn’t want to scare me.” he said.
It’s now been three years since the transplant and finally his immune system has been rebuilt. Kelley can finally go out in public after being confined to home and the hospital for two years.
“I’m expected to make essentially a full recovery and live next to a normal life for the rest of my days so that’s pretty exciting really,” he said.
While cancer treatment has taken his hair, he’s not going to wait around for it to grow back. “People tell me I’ve got a great shaped head for baldness.” he said.
His attitude is nothing but positive. “I can count at least a half dozen ways I should be six feet under already and I’m not, so by that math I must be the luckiest guy.”
He also doesn’t have to keep his life on hold anymore. He can finally cash in the wish granted him by the Make-A-Wish Foundation back when he was five-years-old.
“My parents didn’t tell me about it, they were afraid I’d spoil it on something like meeting Barney or something,” he said.
At 10, Kelley felt other sick children were more deserving of the wish than he was. At 17 and waiting for his bone marrow transplant, he was too sick to use it.
Now that he’s healthier than he has been in years, and about to turn 21 – the age when the wish expires – it was time to use the wish at last.
“This year, I thought it’d be a really fun idea to go see March Madness.” he said.
Kelley, his sister, mom and dad headed to San Antonio for the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four and Championship games.
The love and support of his family was a huge reason for his success in battling both the cancer and making it through the bone marrow transplant.
“We haven’t taken a family vacation in, you know, since I’ve been sick, so years.”
While Kelley and his family are finally enjoying life again, it’s his message to others that gives meaning to his life. “So maybe for a kid to see somebody who has gone through the whole thing and now can do something fun like go to the Final Four and is going to live a normal life for the rest of the time being, maybe it gives them a little bit of hope for the future.” he said.
Kelley also credits Dr. Alexis Melton at UCSF who performed the bone marrow transplant that saved his life.