I Was Given Three Months to Live with Lymphoma But Beat the Odds

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My Last Hope

One Final Chance?

My medical team held one more card: a stem cell transplant. They would use cells from a donor to replace my immune system. Normally, only people in remission can get this type of transplant. My cancer was actively growing, so I wouldn't ordinarily be a candidate. What's more, the standard prep of intense chemo and radiation might kill me. But the National Cancer Institute's Experimental Transplantation and Immunology Branch was studying a new approach. It involved low-intensity chemo, no radiation, and a lower risk that the donor's cells would attack my healthy organs in addition to the cancer.

The treatment had never been tried on a lymphoma patient with such a large, growing tumor, said David C. Halverson, MD, one of the team doctors. I learned later that he privately thought my case was pretty hopeless. But I knew I had to keep fighting because of Grace. I couldn't bear the thought of not watching my daughter grow up. Both of my sisters volunteered to be donors, and Amanda was a match. Transplant day was surprisingly anti-climactic. Amanda's donor cells trickled from a low-tech plastic bag into a line in my arm in a 15-minute procedure. While in the hospital, I had to be careful about germs but I could wander to the library for magazines and see Adam and Grace in my room. After nine days I moved to a house we'd rented for the 100-day follow-up. Even though the treatment was a long shot, I felt my hope and faith starting to return. My weight kept dropping, though. That was awful. Believe me, 103 pounds on a 5-foot-7 frame does not look good. I had dark circles under my eyes, and there was nothing to me. Nothing. In July in Maryland, it was a million degrees outside but I was taking hot showers all day long just to warm up. I would stand in the shower and cry because I looked so gross.

Friends, relatives, and patients I'd met started prayer chains, which grew and spread all over the country. I had so many people in my corner -- the great medical staff, my family, friends, and even strangers. I don't believe God doles out miracles just because you pray. But knowing that these people were pulling for me lifted my spirits.

Finally, Some Good News

On post-transplant day 28 several researchers raced into my room to deliver test results. They were excited to tell me that the tumor had stopped growing -- and areas of it were clearly less active. "We couldn't ask for better results this early in the treatment," one said. Nurses popped in to congratulate me. I was ecstatic but cautious. I'd been knocked down so many times that I feared a tsunami might still be lurking over the horizon.

Around day 60, a horribly itchy rash appeared and quickly spread all over my body. "Here it comes," I thought. My new immune cells were attacking my body. A few days later, I doubled over in pain after eating a banana as the reaction targeted my lower intestine. Despite my fears, my doctors were reassuring. "You're still doing well. The cancer is dying."

Then, on day 100, Dr. Halverson told us the big news: "There's absolutely no sign of active disease," he said. A torrent of emotion gushed out of me -- I was laughing, crying, laughing again. "My God, we've done it," I said. We called everyone we could think of and went out to dinner. After months of bad news and struggle, it felt almost bewildering, like standing on solid ground after the lifeguards haul you in, blinking at the beauty of a serene seascape and marveling at everything that just happened. Dr. Halverson told me later it was the most dramatic turnaround he'd ever seen.

I slowly started to feel like myself again. Or should I say my new and different self? I'm thankful to God and for the prayers of friends and strangers. On one level, I have a victorious sense of, "Screw you, cancer, I'm going to live to be 100." But the many cancer patients I've met who fought hard but didn't make it haunt me. I don't give myself credit for cheating death. Instead, I appreciate life for what it is: a gift I love, did nothing to deserve, and can never, ever, take for granted.

 

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