Monday, September 26, 2011

Blood Cancer Awareness Month...Sharing My Story and Some Information

June 1, 2004

As the day wore on and the time approached for Barbara’s stem cells to be transfused into me, sorrow replaced anxiety. I am losing a part of me as her stem cells replace mine and begin producing her blood in my body. My blood type will change from O- to O+, which is Barbara’s blood type. This changing of blood type is somewhat unsettling to me. However, I also view this day as one of rebirth—another birthday to celebrate. It is extraordinary how this whole bone marrow transplant process works. It is truly miraculous. And not only is this a physical rebirth, but because of all the self-reflection and positive changes I’m attempting to make in my life, it is a spiritual and emotional rebirth as well. So despite feeling melancholy over what I am losing, there is excitement and anticipation about what I am gaining. I thank God for the new stem cells that will generate new and healthy blood in my body and grant me a second chance at life.

Around 3:30 p.m., Dr. Hsu administered the blood transfusion. The transplant was a slow, intravenous infusion through my catheter of the bone marrow collected from my sister Barbara. My friend Karen B was already stationed at my bedside and my sister Karen waltzed into the room just minutes before the doctor began the procedure. The transplant, which took all of twenty minutes, was uneventful except for an intense scratchiness in my throat caused by the preservative in the blood. I was given Benadryl prior to the transfusion, which quickly sent me off to la-la land. Meanwhile, my sister and friend sat vigil, watching my blood pressure rise and fall—sometimes significantly—on the monitor. The nurses assured them that this was normal. ~ Excerpt from Rebirth

I am a leukemia survivor. September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month, so I am sharing my story in order to put a face to those who have had, or are currently living with, a blood cancer diagnosis. I was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) December 18, 2003. I went through four rounds of high-dose chemotherapy (for which I was hospitalized 4-5 days each time) and total body irradiation twice a day for four days prior to my bone marrow transplant, which took place June 1, 2004.

Overall, I dealt well with chemotherapy. I did not experience vomiting, mouth sores or any major infections. My discomfort was mostly due to extreme fatigue and some nausea. And of course, I lost my hair, which I thought would be devastating, but it wasn’t. I knew it would eventually grow back, and it was rather interesting because how often does a girl get to see what she looks like bald?

As my doctors and I began discussing BMT, additional drama was injected into the situation because my bone marrow donor match was my sister Barbara who was pregnant with her second child. Rarely is a pregnant woman an acceptable stem cell/bone marrow donor, and there is very little information available about pregnancy and bone marrow donation, which made this an even more difficult, agonizing decision for her and her husband. They knew this would greatly increase my chances for a successful outcome, but what impact would it have on their unborn child?

In the end, twenty-eight weeks into her pregnancy, she agreed to do the bone marrow harvest. A needle was inserted into her hipbone about seventy times in two hours with a spinal only. To ensure the baby was not put at additional risk, she opted not to have general anesthesia, which is normal protocol for a bone marrow donor during a bone marrow harvest. She saved my life that day; she is my hero. And today, that baby is a gorgeous, healthy, smart seven-year-old boy named Andrew.

Andrew at 1 month old (with me)

Andrew and I (present day)

Going into chemo, radiation, and transplant I knew there had been considerable advances in the treatment of blood cancers over the past few decades, and that knowledge gave me hope. Blood Cancer Awareness month is a time to focus more intensely on educating the public about the types of blood cancers, providing information about cancer research and the need for funding said research, and highlighting the resources available to survivors and their families as they navigate their way through treatment and recovery.

Harry’s September 15 post outlined some statistics related to blood cancers and survival rates, and while survival rates in some blood cancers have increased substantially, there is still much work to be done to eradicate cancer. Maintaining funding levels for cancer research is vitally important, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) provides millions of dollars every year toward research and the development of new medications. Gleevec, FDA approved in 2001, and Sprycel, approved in 2006, are two therapies proven quite effective over the past decade in treating chronic myelogenous (or myeloid) leukemia.

In 2008, when I first heard about Sprycel, I was talking to my oncologist about it and he informed me that Sprycel had also been found to be effective in treating ALL when the Philadelphia chromosome is present. I thought that was pretty amazing—that a drug found effective in treating one type of leukemia was then found to be effective treating another one. The added value of drug research is that these therapies are often found to treat multiple diseases—Gleevec is now approved to treat ten different cancers.

In these tight economic times of government budget cutting, it is vital that cancer research be funded adequately so that advances in the treatment of blood cancers will continue to result in improved survival rates. Light the Night is one program (of many) the LLS has implemented to raise money that is then allocated toward cancer research and patient services and education programs. Next month, I will be posting in more detail about the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and their Light the Night program. Stay tuned…

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