Not even two years ago, Benjamin fell ill with leukemia. His chances of survival were slim. Only a stem cell donation could save the family man. At FOCUS Online he tells how he found his way back to life and why he wants to climb the Zugspitze in July.
Up to 50 kilometers jogging and 30 kilometers swimming per week, cycling to work every day, healthy nutrition, no alcohol – until two years ago, Benjamin, who is now 44, led an active sporting life and was in top shape and healthy. But in the summer of 2020, in the middle of the corona pandemic, the father of two and grandfather of a granddaughter suddenly noticed that something was wrong with him: within weeks he became weaker and weaker and weaker.
There was also unbearable pain all over my body. “I only held out with painkillers,” he tells FOCUS Online. Within just a few weeks, the man, who was in the middle of life, suddenly lacked the strength to do sports. In the end he could hardly get out of bed.
His desperate calls to the doctors remained unsuccessful for weeks. Because of Corona and the overload of many practices, he was brushed off. It was only when open spots on his face and gums suddenly appeared overnight that his dentist sounded the alarm and sent him to have his blood drawn. The doctor assumed it was a bacterial infection and prescribed antibiotics. But Benjamin instinctively refused to take them: “I felt that I would die if I didn’t get a proper check-up soon,” he says.
At Benjamin’s urging, his family doctor had a full blood count done. It quickly turned out that it was something far more serious than a bacterial infection. “He called me and ordered me and my wife in immediately and said I had to go to the clinic immediately because of suspected blood cancer.”
This was actually confirmed there: Benjamin suffered from acute myeloid leukemia (AML), an aggressive form of blood cancer that leads to death within weeks of the first symptoms appearing. “I cried with anger at the diagnosis because nobody took me seriously for weeks and I couldn’t get an appointment,” says Benjamin.
Even if the prognosis was anything but good, Benjamin was glad to finally know the cause of his suffering. However, the cancer was so advanced that Benjamin had only a week left without immediate treatment. “The doctors gave me a 20 percent chance of survival,” Benjamin describes the dramatic situation two years ago. Because without a stem cell donation it was clear that he would not defeat this disease.
From then on Benjamin began a treatment martyrdom consisting of high-dose chemotherapy, whole-body radiation and antibody therapies. For three months he was in the oncological ward of the Würzburg University Hospital and suffered from the most serious side effects of the therapy: from infections, bleeding all over the body, blood poisoning, fever attacks, chills, diarrhea and vomiting to open wounds and seizures.
“Dying would have been easier,” he says of this difficult time. But his strong will and the love for his family and his wife, who drove to the clinic every day, allowed him to keep fighting. “It’s the only thing that kept me alive – without my family and my wife there would have been no reason to go through this agony.”
Then Benjamin’s fate suddenly took a fortunate turn: a stem cell donor was actually found for him in the German Bone Marrow Donation File (DKMS). Not a matter of course, because filtering out a genetic twin among the fewer and fewer participants is small. “I didn’t really believe it at first and didn’t want to get my hopes up too much,” says Benjamin. “It wasn’t until the stem cells were actually transplanted on December 1 that I was happy about this chance at life.”
After the transplant, Benjamin and his family once again experienced anxiety. Because initially the hoped-for reaction of the body did not materialize. “Only on the 13th day did the blood show that the transplanted stem cells were multiplying,” he describes this turning point. In the days that followed, there were more and more, so that even the doctors in the hospital were euphoric. “I was allowed to go home before Christmas on the condition that I come for a check-up four times a week,” he continues.
But the road to recovery after a stem cell transplant takes a long time. After his return, Benjamin first had to isolate himself at home for six months – the risk of contracting an infection was too great. “My wife prepared everything at home – because of the risk of infection, there weren’t even any plants allowed in the house,” he says. This is because the body is genetically reset to zero and the immune system is suppressed as a result of the transplantation.
A year and a half has passed since then, during which Benjamin fought his way back to life bit by bit. Because the first two years after a donation are particularly critical: “During this time, the risk of the disease coming back is particularly high,” he explains.
But Benjamin is lucky: he has no cancer at the moment. “But of course I know that there is a risk that he will come back,” he explains. Benjamin is still satisfied with his current condition: “I’ve been back to work since March and I’ve even started jogging twice a week,” he says. He only drives to the clinic every six weeks for regular check-ups.
Out of gratitude for his second chance, which the stem cell donation made possible for him, Benjamin came up with a plan: “To draw attention to the topic of blood cancer and to collect donations, I will climb the Zugspitze on July 12th,” he says. The Zugspitze has a special meaning for the people of Schweinfurt, for him it is the mountain of hope. Because he has already climbed Germany’s highest peak twice: for the first time in 2013 after a serious illness and for the second time in 2019 after surviving the consequences of a serious skiing accident.
“I want to experience that feeling of being up there again,” he says. Benjamin is not interested in proving time or himself at all. “I run for the many dear people who fought with me against the disease and lost the fight,” he emphasizes. “And for my donor to see that it was worth it,” he adds.
All of the money raised for this campaign goes to the foundation of the opera star José Carreras, who himself developed blood cancer 35 years ago and has since worked tirelessly to save lives.
Anyone who would like to support the campaign in favor of the José Carreras Foundation can donate to the following account:
Donation account of the José Carreras Leukemia Foundation
IBAN: DE96 7008 0000 0319 9666 01 – BIC: DRESDEFF700
Keyword: “Benjamin Zugspitze”
Donations can also be sent via betterplace.org.