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Vern Hakes: I learned the caregiver is impacted possibly greater than the patient

Vern with his family.

In February of 2007, at age 43, I was diagnosed with AML – acute myeloid leukemia – it was a Friday. As I sat in the parking lot of my doctor’s office, I thought of the 1971 movie, “Brian’s Song.” James Cann played NFL football player Brian Piccolo who unfortunately succumbed to leukemia decades earlier. I made a tearful call to my wife Kim who was at home with our three kids, ages 8, 6 and 3. As you might imagine, we were both in a state of shock.

The diagnosis was confirmed initially via a consult and blood work with an oncologist on the following Monday. After initial testing, the doctor opted to skip further evaluation and send me to Northside Hospital. “Straight to Northside,” we were told; no time to even go home and pack a bag.  Dr. Asad Bashey was waiting for me upon my arrival – standing at the door of what would be my room for the next four weeks. Very quickly he and his team at the Blood and Marrow Transplant Group of Georgia (BMTGA) immersed us in a crash course on all things AML - its sub-types, their impact on prognosis, and possible courses of treatment. I started chemotherapy the next morning.

The prognosis was not good. After genetic testing, it was determined that I had AML-M5 with a translocation between chromosome 9 and 11. Survival odds at the time were 30% and further aggressive treatment was required. Within sixty days I had received two rounds of chemo, a stem cell transplant (thanks to my sister, Francey), and as it turns out – a new lease on life thanks to the talented doctors, mid-levels and nurses at the BMTGA. Over the next fourteen years I would be in and out of the hospital for various reasons – RSV, H1N1 swine flu, joint replacements, heart attack, Covid-19 – but always grateful to be alive and watching my kids grow up.

As I reflect on the entirety of my process, I must say the most important person to my recovery and continued health is my wife, my caregiver and my rock – Kim. I learned early in the journey that the caregiver is impacted to a different and almost certainly greater degree than the patient. As the patient, I just put my head down, focused on various treatments and recoveries and worked my hardest to heal and survive. Kim was left carrying everything else. Financial and familial stress, the logistics of raising three very active children at times with little help from me, and finally the uncertainty of the future and my place in it.

We were fortunate to be blessed with a close and generous extended family, great friends, and a faith community that supported us through thick and thin. I’m sometimes asked to speak with those recently diagnosed with similar conditions to mine. I always point out the need to make sure there is a support network in place for your caregiver. Then I move on to the process, faith in the medical experts, and working the program laid out before you. The statistics aren’t very relevant – one’s individual journey is all that matters.

Feeling like most survivors I suspect, the recognition that life is precious, sometimes unfair, but always something to celebrate and live joyfully is a lesson learned. I revel in the lives of my children and time spent with family and friends. I treasure the gift that is my wife and all she has done and continues to do for both me and our family. I am a man with many blessings and plan to enjoy them for the rest of my life – nothing is promised or guaranteed – live every day to the fullest!

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