Hope heads south for leukemia treatment

South Surrey native Brandon Durieux travelling to Texas cancer centre after diagnosis last summer.

Brandon and Michelle Durieux will be heading to Texas next week for cancer treatment after Brandon

Brandon and Michelle Durieux will be heading to Texas next week for cancer treatment after Brandon

Brandon Durieux is not giving up without a fight.

The 24-year-old South Surrey native was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia five months ago, a diagnosis that came as a huge shock to him and his now-wife Michelle.

His fight against the rare disease began within days of receiving the news; however, in the months that have passed, the young couple have faced repeated heartbreak, shaking their hopes of a recovery.

With local treatment options exhausted, the Durieuxs are hoping specialized treatment in Texas will give Brandon a fighting chance.

The couple’s love story began on the Internet in 2011, when the two met through the online video game World of Warcraft. The two hit it off immediately, although the connection was strictly platonic – Michelle, from Austin, Texas, told Peace Arch News the first time they video chatted on Skype, Brandon was caught by surprise.

“That was when he figured out I was a girl,” she laughed.

The two stayed in touch for a few years, until early 2014, when Michelle decided to take a chance and visit Brandon in Victoria, where he was living at the time.

“I fell in love with B.C. and how beautiful it was, and who Brandon was as a person,” Michelle said, noting seven months later she and Brandon were packing up her belongings in a U-Haul and driving from Texas to Victoria.

About a year after Michelle moved to B.C., Brandon – an Elgin Park grad who was working as a landscaper – began to notice himself tiring easily. He had a hard time making it to the gym after a day’s work.

Soon, he was struggling to make it through the workday without feeling exhausted.  Then he noticed unexplained bruises all over his body.

One evening, a few days before Brandon had planned to go to the doctor, he and Michelle were watching an episode of the hospital comedy Scrubs.

“The patient in the hospital had leukemia, and in the episode he had bruises all over,” Brandon recalled. “I looked at myself, and looked at Michelle and said, ‘wouldn’t it be a crazy thing if I had leukemia?’”

Two days, later, Brandon was sent for bloodwork; the lab called a few hours later and told him to get to the hospital. He was diagnosed that day.

Because of the seriousness of his condition – his blood counts were at near-critical levels – he was transferred to Vancouver General Hospital, where he began the first of two rounds of unsuccessful chemotherapy.

While in the hospital receiving treatment, Michelle proposed. Despite the circumstances, Brandon happily said ‘yes’.

“There was no doubt in my mind when I met her that she was going to be my wife someday,” he said.

During a month-long treatment break in the fall while Brandon recovered from the intense chemotherapy, the two planned their wedding. The day before their wedding they found out Brandon’s chemotherapy had not worked.

The silver lining of the terrible news was that Brandon was let out of the hospital, so the two married Oct. 18 at his mom’s South Surrey home, in front of a small group of family and friends, selectively chosen to reduce the risk to Brandon’s compromised immune system.

“We made sure to have lots of hand sanitizer around,” Michelle, 25, said.

With chemotherapy no longer an option, Brandon was put on a drug trial late last year, and for a short while, things started to look up. His blood counts were slowly improving, and his doctors began making plans for a stem-cell transplant to take place once he was in remission.

“We felt like we were finally going in the right direction and things were looking promising,” Michelle said. “But things ended up going the complete opposite way when he got his bone marrow biopsy just a few weeks ago.”

Last Friday, the Durieuxs were told by Brandon’s doctors there were no other treatment options they could offer him.

Determined to do all they can, the couple leaves Monday for Houston, where Brandon will go to MD Anderson Cancer Center, a specialized hospital that has its own dedicated leukemia floor.

The U.S. hospital currently has eight times as many treatment studies focusing on the specific genetic mutation he has than VGH does, Brandon said.

The hospital also offers medications that are FDA-approved, but not yet sanctioned in Canada.

Treatment, however, will come with a hefty price tag – Brandon’s initial consultation and diagnostic process – set to get underway Wednesday – will cost $37,000 US alone; full treatment will likely cost the couple hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The plane trip to Texas will also place Brandon at risk.

“It’s one of the scariest places you can go if you have a compromised immune system,” he said of being on an airplane. “If we get sat down beside someone who’s coughing the entire time, my chances of getting sick are really high. I’m like the bubble boy.”

Despite the risk and the financial burden, the Durieuxs have no doubt it is the right step to take, and are striving to stay as positive as possible.

Michelle points to Brandon’s “contagious positivity” as the driving factor behind their resilience, while Brandon said he is aided by the overwhelming support they’ve received from friends and family.

“I get a lot of positivity when I look at my wife, and when I look at my family and friends and everyone standing together to help me,” he said. “It’s a beautiful world that we live in when people help each other out like this. Every step that we take backwards, I’m always ready to take a step forward.”

Michelle has set up a gofundme page (www.gofundme.com/vzm5ejpt) to raise funds to help pay for treatment. Brandon’s family is hosting a pub-night fundraiser Feb. 20, 5 p.m.at Jimmy Flynn’s Celtic Snug – tickets can be purchased by emailing ashcroftwindow@shaw.ca

And a friend has set up a fundraising account at all Encorp Return It facilities in B.C. – bottles and cans can be returned under ‘Brandon Durieux, account number 504’.

The couple also encourages anyone who can to donate blood or register for the stem cell bank.

For Brandon, the message for anyone offering support is a simple one.

“They are giving a person and their entire family another chance to live their life to the fullest… to be able to love and to live and to be happy every day.”