Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor: MD Anderson saved my life three times

Statistically speaking, I shouldn’t be alive today. Since being diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 27, I’ve suffered two relapses. I’ve also had two stem cell transplants, 33 bone marrow biopsies, 186 CT scans and countless rounds of chemotherapy.

You might think I wouldn’t enjoy a very good quality of life because of all that. But you’d be wrong. I’m an active, energetic, healthy 41-year-old. I’m also a wife and the mother of two beautiful children, ages 11 and 9.

I do have some side effects from my cancer treatment, such as fatigue and recurrent sinus infections. But overall, my life today is full and happy. And I have MD Anderson to thank for it.

My first non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis

At the time of my first cancer diagnosis, I was in the best shape of my life. It was November 2004, and just a few months prior, I’d run my fastest marathon yet in San Diego. I was also in the process of training to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Then, while getting the necessary vaccinations and bloodwork done for my upcoming trip to Africa, I discovered that my platelets were at a life-threateningly low level. Within 18 hours, I was diagnosed with stage IV follicular lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And all my plans changed.

My non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma treatment

As a native Texan who grew up in San Antonio, I knew about MD Anderson’s amazing reputation. So there was never really a discussion as to where I’d go for my lymphoma treatment.

My doctors there started me on chemotherapy right away, as my cancer was very aggressive and already widespread. Fortunately, I responded well to it, and after eight rounds of “R-CHOP” chemotherapy (rituximab, cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine and prednisone), my cancer went into remission.

My husband and I got married, then moved to California for a job opportunity. Once settled, we immediately met with a local fertility specialist to freeze some embryos. We were both very aware that my cancer could come back at any time. And if that happened, I’d probably need a stem cell transplant, which would make it unlikely we’d conceive naturally.

My first non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma relapse

Sure enough, the lymphoma returned just eight months later. My husband and I flew back to Houston to meet with Dr. Borje Andersson in MD Anderson’s Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy Center. He recommended a stem cell transplant. Luckily, my brother was a perfect tissue-type match, so I got my first stem cell donation from him. It went very well.

Eight months later, my husband and I decided to implant one of our embryos. That resulted in our daughter Ellie. Much to our surprise, I conceived again naturally just a year and a half later. Our son Tommy was born in January 2010.

My second non-Hodgkin’s relapse

Once my pregnancy belly started to fade, one fateful look in the mirror revealed what had previously been hidden: swollen lymph nodes in my groin. My cancer was back for a third time. Only now, I had a two-year-old and a five-week-old to think about.

My husband and I flew back to Houston. We knew my treatment options would be more limited, but we trusted Dr. Andersson to find the best one available. And he did.

Dr. Andersson recommended a small clinical trial that was showing great success with patients whose cancer had relapsed. I met all the participation criteria, so I joined the trial. I had five more rounds of high-dose chemotherapy (busulfan and fludarabine), followed by a second stem cell transplant on July 5, 2010. Then I received cyclophosphamide by IV to prevent graft-versus-host disease.

The second transplant worked even better than the first. Because I’ve been cancer-free ever since.

What makes MD Anderson special

MD Anderson has saved my life three times, so I always knew it was a special place. But it wasn’t until last summer that I truly understood why.

My family and I were there in July 2018 for my annual check-up. When we finished, it was late in the day, and the sun was setting. But Dr. Andersson saw the football in my young son’s hands and asked if he wanted to throw the ball around. The hallways were empty, so they played together for about 10 minutes. And that is the moment I truly understood the magic of MD Anderson.

By this point, Dr. Andersson already seemed like a part of our family. But when he took the time to play with my son — after he’d just worked a full day — I knew that he actually was.

And it’s because of him and all the other amazing doctors, nurses and staff at MD Anderson that my husband still has a wife, my children still have a mom and my heart has a home.

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