Acute Leukemia: Woman Beats Cancer 2 Times

To the brink and back again

woman watching sunset

Like many of my cancer patients, Mary Kay*, 38, couldn’t understand her symptoms. She was a runner but kept feeling short of breath. She took care of herself but had sinus infections that were relentless, one after the other. She was always, as she described, “super-tired.”

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Finally, her primary care doctor gave her a blood test. Her white blood cell count was through the roof at 64,000. (The normal range is between 3 and 10,000). He told her she needed an oncologist immediately. Her diagnosis: acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).

Without time to think, she was admitted for six to eight weeks of intensive chemotherapy treatment. There wasn’t much discussion. “It was very fast,” she says. “Boom boom boom.”

Surprising diagnosis

Nobody suspects leukemia at first. I see patients who have come to the emergency room for severe flu symptoms or bleeding gums. Once they get a blood test and leukemia is discovered, they’re admitted on the spot.

With acute leukemia, there isn’t time to waste because it can be fatal quickly. My team and I get people into the hospital for chemotherapy immediately. We have to move. It’s like a burst appendix. No one thinks they have that, but once doctors discover it, they have to remove it right away.

With this disease, we work hard to cure you, and one-third of the time we will. I tell my patients the truth — we’re going to make you miserable because we have to treat acute leukemia the same way we treated it 40 years ago: with chemo, and all that comes along with it.

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In all these maneuvers, the immediate goal is to get you into remission, and 75 percent of patients do make it into remission through their initial therapy. Once they do, they have a chance for cure with more treatment.

Another bout with cancer

All seemed well. Mary Kay made it through the intensive chemotherapy and came out of the hospital. She was in remission. Every month she’d go to the doctor and get her blood checked. Her reports were good. A few months later, Mary Kay was back running and working out again.

Then, suddenly, the shortness of breath returned.

She had relapsed. We had to readmit her to the hospital and give her even more grueling chemotherapy, with higher doses of medicine to achieve a second remission.

Looking back she says, “They bring you down all the way without killing you.”

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But she wasn’t finished. She needed a bone marrow transplant for cure. Unfortunately, she did not have any siblings and a search for an unrelated donor was unsuccessful. We were ecstatic a few months later when we found some suitable umbilical cord blood units frozen in a cord blood bank. We prepared her for a cord blood transplant, which I talk about in my earlier blog.

I am happy to report the transplant went well and after a long, hard journey to the bottom and back again, Mary Kay is healthy and running again.

We’re grateful to 4th Angel Cancer Patient and Caregiving Program for connecting us.

*Name not disclosed to protect patient identity

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Matt Kalaycio, MD, FACP

Matt Kalaycio, MD, FACP, a U.S. News Top Doctor, is Director of the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Cleveland Clinic.
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