My cancer diagnosis came in May of 2007 after months of feeling like something was not right with my health. I was getting sick frequently and the illnesses would linger for weeks at a time. I noticed that the lymph nodes under my jaw and in my neck were enlarged and I was always tired and could not get through an evening without a nap after work. I had seen a doctor for some tests, but nothing significant showed up. A few months later, I asked for a complete physical with blood work and that is when the red flags showed up. My white blood count was elevated and my lymphocyte counts were abnormal. The doctor decided to repeat the blood tests in a couple of weeks and the results were even more abnormal. At that time, I was referred to an oncologist, had to have a surgical procedure to remove an enlarged lymph node in my armpit, as well as, have a bone marrow biopsy for diagnostic purposes. It was determined that I did in fact have a type of blood cancer called Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL).
As one would imagine, a cancer diagnosis is a frightening experience for anyone, but I was no stranger to cancer and it’s uncertainty for I had just lost my sister four months prior to my diagnosis, to Renal Cell Carcinoma and also had a brother-in-law who was fighting his own battle with a very serious type of blood cancer. He has since lost his seven year battle in April 2011. These two immediate family member losses have left a huge void in my life. I miss and think of them every day.
Not only was cancer in my own family, but my career as Certified Surgical Technologist at Centennial Medical Center brought me face to face with patients suffering with cancer on a daily basis. The surgeon I work with most frequently is actually a General Surgery Oncologist and he performed my lymph node biopsy in the same OR where I perform my skills. It was a very surreal experience to be on the other side of the surgery table, so to speak. It gave me a real appreciation for the fear and anxiety my patients feel at their time of vulnerability.
My personal cancer journey led me to the Sarah Cannon Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant Center which is located on the Centennial Medical Center campus. I was introduced to Dr. Ian Flinn, Director of Hematologic Malignancies and he manages my care with excellence. I could not ask for a more caring, knowledgeable and professional oncologist and staff.
Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia is a slow growing, white blood cell, immune system cancer and often does not require treatment right away. Once all of the appropriate tests are completed and the breadth of the disease is determined, a plan of action is made. For me, it was a “watch and wait” plan. I saw Dr. Flinn every three months for re-evaluation and it was almost three years (January 2010) before I became symptomatic enough to require treatment. My white blood cell counts were climbing and the lymph nodes in my body were extremely enlarged and causing pain in my lower abdomen and lower back. My spleen was also affected and was as large as my liver. It was time to treat my disease and put me in remission.
A plan was designed for me that consisted of three consecutive days of treatment, every twenty-eight days for six months of a targeted therapy called Rituxan, along with two different chemotherapy agents. I remember being angry and humbled at the same time that I had to endure such a regimen. I would miss work the week of treatment but was able to return the next week. Although Dr. Flinn reported that most people do not get sick from this particular therapy… I did. I was quite nauseated and could not eat or even look at food for several days during and after my treatment. Not exactly the weight loss plan I would recommend! The good news is that I did not lose my hair so I did not really look like a “cancer patient”. The treatment was very successful and I am currently in remission, two and a half years later, and doing well.
The treatment did have some, not so pleasant, side effects. For quite some time, I suffered significant joint pain and had numbness in my hands and feet. Over time, that has improved. I take Turmeric and Vitamin B50 Complex to reduce the inflammation and numbness. The treatments also wreaked havoc on my hormones and put me into screeching halt menopause. I had extreme hot flashes and night sweats and tried to suffer through them because I did not want to take hormones. Eventually, I had to take measures to help minimize them because I was not sleeping and was making myself and everyone else around me miserable.
Since my diagnosis, I make conscious efforts to try to maintain good health and boost my immune system as much as possible. I began taking a whole food fruit, vegetable and berry nutritional supplement that has made a huge positive impact on my overall health and well being. I educated myself on ways to remain healthy and learned that diet and nutrition are extremely important. I found it difficult to consume as many fruits and vegetables as I should so an encapsulated whole food supplement made perfect sense to me. I take it daily to bridge the gaps in my nutritional intake. I also try to get plenty of rest, engage in moderate exercise, reduce my stress and surround myself with a strong support system of family and friends.
CLL, being a chronic blood cancer, means that I may in fact come out of remission in a few years. Since the completion of my treatment in 2010, I have lived with a small nagging sense of dread in the back of my mind that I would someday have to repeat that same unpleasant regimen of treatment in the future. However, earlier this year Dr. Flinn presented me with the fantastic news that there is a most promising new therapy for CLL currently in trial phases that he would recommend for me should my remission end. The therapy does not consist of any chemotherapy agents but rather a daily oral medication that actually inhibits the cellular mutation of CLL cancer cells and has minimal side effects. Amazing!! I am so grateful for research and to think that it has improved so much in just five short years. What a blessing! I feel like my battle is won – no more chemotherapy and no more threat of a possible bone marrow transplant!!
My cancer journey has had many facets of ups and downs, but I have never allowed the disease to rule my life. I made a decision early on that I was going to live my life to the fullest and that I was in control of my life, not the cancer. There are always blessings to behold in any adversity if you keep an open mind and that has certainly held true for me and my family. I have gained an all new perspective on life and actually believe that I have become a better person having faced this little bump in the road. I enjoy having a success story to share with others who are facing the uncertainties of this disease to give them hope and inspire them to realize that even though life throws you curveballs, there is life despite cancer.