As a nurse, alumnus Justin Regan worked with cancer patients. Then, he was diagnosed himself.

Justin Regan thought completing the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program in the Regis Loretto Heights School of Nursing was going to be the most difficult experience of his life.

That is, until he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. The grueling battle with myelodysplastic syndrome quickly made other challenges seem easy. But if anyone knew the struggles that would come with fighting cancer, it was Regan, a nurse who worked directly with cancer patients.

Regan, who was diagnosed in 2020 and has been recovering since a transplant in 2021, is now raising money on behalf of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Visionaries of the Year Fundraiser to continue his work helping cancer patients, hoping to play a part in easing the same type of pain that he experienced.

A career in nursing

Regan, who graduated from Regis in 2006, worked as a flight attendant for 21 years before deciding, along with his wife, who also was a flight attendant, to make a career change. When his wife asked him what career he would pursue if he could start all over again, he decided that he would’ve liked to be a small-town doctor. But he decided that, at age 42, medical school wasn’t in the cards. So, he decided on a new dream: to become a nurse. He discovered the Regis Accelerated BS in Nursing Program, which allows students who already have bachelor’s degrees to complete required nursing courses in one year, would put him on a path to pursue his new dream. His wife, Val, meanwhile, worked to become a teacher.

Regan’s courses weren’t easy — and completing them in one year required dedication. But Regan said he was motivated and had support from friends.

“I had never done that much homework in such a condensed amount of time,” Regan said. “You know, you get through it. And I made lifelong friends. You go to battle together, basically, and you come out at graduation.”

Regan also took the University's Jesuit mission to heart. As a student, he received a booklet that lists the Jesuit values. "I actually have that still, and I'll still read through it," he said. "I really bought into the Regis philosophy, the tenets, especially 'How ought we to live?'"

After he graduated, he began his new career in 2007. In 2011 he spent time at Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge working as a float nurse, which means he moved between different units to meet different staffing needs. Eventually, he worked with oncology patients.

“I go, ‘oh, man, I think this is going to be it for me.’ I just fell in love with that whole realm, and became an oncology nurse in 2012,” Regan said.

From that point on, he cared for hundreds of cancer patients, often preparing them for transplants for various types of the disease. As much as he worked hard to prepare his patients for transplants, though, Regan didn’t work directly as a transplant nurse, so he didn’t see what his patients went through after they left his care.

 “A lot of the leukemia patients (I was) getting ready for transplant, but I never knew the transplant world,” he said. “I just prepped them for it.”

Then came 2020.

“I think I’ve got leukemia.”

As the world began grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, Regan began feeling fatigue unlike any other he had experienced in his life. His hospital’s policy concerning workers who felt ill, at the time, was to send them home until they tested negative for COVID-19. So, Regan went home and took a test. When it came back negative, he took another. That came back negative, too.

Regan, still feeling fatigued, couldn’t go back to work until he saw a doctor, per his hospital’s policy. When he finally did, he asked his doctor to test him for leukemia.

“He was trying to work me up for cardio, and I'm like, ‘No, no, no, doc, I'm an oncology nurse,’ and I go, ‘I think I've got leukemia.’”

The hospital drew blood. At about 9:30 p.m. that day, the hospital's crisis center told Regan he should go to the emergency room. His son drove him to Good Samaritan Hospital in Lafayette.

“And I said, ‘Listen, pal, this may not work out. This may not turn out well, just so you know,’” Regan said to his son.

In the hospital Regan was told that he had myelodysplastic syndrome. His case was so high-risk, his doctors told him a few days later, that he would require a stem cell transplant. On Dec. 9, 2020, after receiving rounds of chemotherapy, Regan received his first transplant. Because the procedure happened during a COVID-19 peak, Regan couldn’t have visitors, so for weeks saw only the nurses who cared for him and the people who cleaned his room.

“I would so look forward to Maria, my housekeeper, coming in every day and cleaning my room … I would just talk with her,” he said.

Regan went home to recover on New Year’s Eve, and in February, he received news that no cancer patient wants to hear: He relapsed, and he’d need another transplant.

“I was like, ‘Oh good God, man. I do not want to go through that again,’” he said. “Because it was pretty miserable. I don't sugarcoat it — it was pretty bad. But you know, you dig down — I had a terrific support system — and you just you just go for it.”

In June 2021, Regan received his second transplant. Since then, he has been recovering with the help and support of his family — and he’s still working to support cancer patients.

For Regan, receiving both transplants and going through chemo was both familiar and strange. In his career as a nurse, he saw hundreds of people go through the process. He knew what to expect, yet it took a moment for that experience to kick in.

“It's kind of wild because you have all this nursing knowledge here, but once you hear a diagnosis like that, it kind of like goes out the window for a while because you're so stunned and dazed,” Regan said.

But soon, the nursing knowledge became bittersweet.

“I am glad I knew what I knew because I cut out the middleman,” Regan said. “I understood the language. But it also heightened my dread because I had seen plenty of patients going through chemo, getting ready to go to a transplant.”

Now that he’s on the other side of his transplant and healing well, Regan said he can relate to his patients on a deeper level.

“Now, I just I just have that extra layer of expertise, I guess you could call it, or even care and compassion, because I know what these people are going to go through,” he said.

Finding support

One of his biggest supporters throughout the process was the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Regan, who was diagnosed on a Monday, received a call from LLS on a Wednesday.

“It was like I was sitting in a complete daze. I was like, 'My life has changed,’ and … they were there. They've been there every step of the way.”

Nearly four years after his diagnosis, Regan is working closely with LLS to raise funds as part of the organization’s Visionaries of the Year Fundraiser, which creates fundraising teams to raise money over 10 weeks. Until the campaign’s end in May, Regan will be raising funds to help support the organization’s mission to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma and improve quality of life for patients and families. Support includes patient counseling and funding research.

Regan said his family — his wife Val and sons Tristan and Ian — helped support him from the moment he received his diagnosis, from sanitizing their home constantly to driving him to doctor’s appointments to offering words of support.

It’s a type of support Regan passes on to his patients. Today, he is continuing his work as an oncology nurse care coordinator with Kaiser Permanente.

“I still think of myself as a survivor,” Regan said. “I don't let it hold me back. I don't keep looking over my shoulder waiting for the other shoe to drop or whatever. I'm going to live my life doing what I want to do to the best of my ability.”

Learn more about Regan’s Visionaries of the Year Fundraiser.


Regis alumnus Justin Regan and his wife, Val Regan.