Leukemia diagnosis brings survivor, daughter closer than ever

Dana MacFarlane may have been the one who received a leukemia diagnosis, but she’s certain every one of her family members suffered just as much during her treatment. Still, she chooses to see the good that’s come out of her journey. “I’m closer to everyone in my family due to this cancer,” she says. That’s been especially true for her relationship with her oldest daughter, professional pole vaulter Demi Payne. “We’ve always been close, but now there’s just a different type of closeness,” Demi says. Dana, 48, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in July 2017. Her husband Craig needed to return to East Texas to work and care for their two teenage daughters, Blake and MacKenzie, so Demi, 26, paused her training for the 2020 Olympic Team Trials to care for her mother. “As much as she says she needed me to be with her, I need to be here with her just the same amount,” says Demi. “My mom has always been that person for me — she was always pushing me to succeed and always so encouraging to me, and it was awesome that I got to stay here for two weeks and be that for her.” Reasons to smile during stem cell transplant recovery Dana underwent a stem cell transplant on Nov. 1, 2017. During her recovery, Demi cheered up her mom by snapping silly pictures and videos, and sharing them with the thousands of friends and supporters who follow her on social media. “She’d come and crawl in bed with me, and she’s like, ‘C’mon, Mama, we need to take a selfie!’ So we’d...

Leukemia survivor finds second chance — and third wife — at MD Anderson

Two-time widower Paul Nielsen was in excellent health at age 67. So the former marathon runner knew something was wrong when he started feeling tired all the time in the fall of 2015. “I had to nap for a couple of hours almost every afternoon,” he says. “I couldn’t even make it to supper.” Though concerned by his fatigue, Paul put off investigating it until his regular annual physical in January 2016. That’s when blood tests revealed he had acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a type of blood cancer. “I wasn’t really shocked,” he says. “We were looking for something and that was it, so we just needed to get on it.” Finding the right leukemia treatment Paul’s local doctor didn’t treat leukemia, so he got a referral to MD Anderson. It was here that Paul met Stefan Ciurea, M.D. — and found his future wife. Ciurea confirmed Paul’s acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis, then recommended a mild form of chemotherapy. It was not as effective as they’d hoped, so Ciurea switched Paul to a more aggressive form of chemotherapy. Paul received five rounds of it, followed by an allogeneic stem cell transplant. ‘We’re supposed to be together’ The woman who would eventually become Paul’s third wife was already a professional friend of his in the oil and gas industry. He’d actually known Cyndi – whose husband had died suddenly just a few months earlier – for about 10 or 15 years. “But I think God put us in each other’s lives,” Paul says of their connecting through his leukemia treatment. A mutual friend dragged Cyndi to MD Anderson in June...

Finding hope in helping others after my wife’s death from synovial sarcoma

My late wife, Melissa, was diagnosed with stage IV synovial sarcoma — a rare type of soft tissue cancer — in January 2016. She died from complications of it on Sept. 11, 2017. But neither of us ever saw the point of asking, “Why me?” It just didn’t seem productive. Even if we could’ve come up with an answer, it wasn’t going to help us in any way, so we decided it wasn’t going to be a part of the conversation. Instead, we focused on what we could do. With sarcoma, it’s all about managing quality of life, so we tried to be as progressive as possible in deciding on Melissa’s treatment. We also set up a travel assistance fund for other adults with sarcoma, so that they could obtain a second opinion without financial hardship. Now that my wife is gone, I’m also keeping her memory alive for our two young sons. My wife’s synovial sarcoma diagnosis Synovial sarcoma usually occurs in arms or legs, but in Melissa’s case, it was in the pleural lining of her right lung. This type of cancer is usually found in young adults ages 15-40. Melissa was 37 when she was diagnosed. Synovial sarcoma is a silent cancer, in that there often aren’t any obvious symptoms. But in Melissa’s case, she woke up one night in October 2015 with pain on her right side. Our younger son was only two and a half at the time, so she thought she’d pulled a muscle in her back from carrying him around. She got a heating pad, took some ibuprofen and went back to...

Mom, daughter face breast cancer 15 years apart

In the early 2000s, Virginia Plett watched her mother and aunt successfully undergo breast cancer treatment at MD Anderson . So when the Kansas resident received her own breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, she knew exactly where she was going for her treatment. “My mother wouldn’t have stood for anything else,” jokes Virginia, whose mom Margaret Looper has been a volunteer at MD Anderson in The Woodlands for the past 13 years. Virginia called MD Anderson in The Woodlands on a Friday, and she had an appointment that Monday. “I was absolutely amazed,” she says. Better breast cancer treatment options On Feb. 27, 2017, Virginia met with Elizabeth FitzSullivan, M.D., and the rest of her care team to discuss treatment for her HER-2 stage I breast cancer. Immediately, she and Margaret noticed how much breast cancer treatment has advanced in just 15 years. “Dr. FitzSullivan was going through all of the options, and Mom didn’t have all those options,” says Virginia, who opted to undergo a lumpectomy, a less invasive surgery that spared most of her breast tissue. Virginia had the surgery in March, and a month later, she then began a 12-week chemotherapy regimen of Taxol and Herceptin®. Despite her weekly trips to Houston and side effects such as hair loss, neuropathy, nausea and skin irritation, the school counselor never stopped working. “I just kept telling myself, ‘This is all good, this is all fine. I can do this,’” she recalls. Medical support across the miles It also helped that Virginia could always count on her care team. “There were a few times I had to contact the...

Familial adenomatous polyposis monitoring, Whipple procedure gave my husband more time

When he was 15, my husband Jesse underwent a colectomy, a procedure that removed his colon. Jesse opted to do this after learning that he had familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), a genetic condition that caused him to develop polyps throughout his gastrointestinal tract and put him at increased risk for colorectal cancer. Fifteen years later, a routine endoscopy showed that Jesse had a lot of polyps in his abdominal area. We needed to see a specialist. At a family member’s recommendation, we came to MD Anderson to see Dr. Patrick Lynch. Familial adenomatous polyposis, then a colorectal cancer diagnosis Up until that point, Jesse and I thought his colon removal would prevent him from developing cancer. However, Dr. Lynch explained that Jesse’s continued polyp growth meant he was still at high risk for colorectal cancer. We returned to MD Anderson every six months for a new endoscopy, and over the years, Jesse’s condition worsened. This past summer, the pathology report on a polyp removed from his duodenum showed high-grade dysplasia, meaning the polyp looked more abnormal – and more like cancer. Dr. Lynch immediately sent us to Dr. Matthew Katz, who said Jesse needed to undergo a Whipple procedure, a surgery to remove his gallbladder, duodenum as well as a part of his pancreas and stomach. Jesse’s Whipple procedure Dr. Katz explained that Jesse’s surgery would be riskier than most because his pancreas was healthy, which made it prone to leakage and fluid buildup, increasing his risk for an infection. To avoid any surprises, Dr. Katz prepared for surgery by performing a CT scan to identify scar tissue from...