Life after my leukemia diagnosis and stem cell transplant

Before my acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis, I was in great shape. I was training 20-25 hours a week as a professional triathlete and had recently won an IRONMAN 70.3 and placed 5th in an IRONMAN Regional Pro Championship in Frankfurt, Germany. I know no one feels great right after an IRONMAN competition, but after Ironman Frankfurt in July, I was feeling a bit “off” and more tired than usual.

A few weeks later, a routine blood test showed that I had a slightly abnormal white blood cell count. My doctor wasn’t sure if my intense workout routine was negatively impacting my body or if something more serious was going on. I followed his advice to cease training for three months to see how I felt. When I returned for a follow-up visit that November, my white blood cell count had dropped more. At that point, my doctor referred me to a hematologist.

An acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis changed my plans

On Dec. 23, 2014, I received my diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia. In a way, I was relieved there was an explanation for my fatigue and a cure for my disease. But I was also in shock. I’d planned to complete at least one more season of racing before retiring. Now, cancer was forcing me to focus on surviving, not training.

I completed chemotherapy near my home, then, at my local oncologist’s recommendation, I traveled to MD Anderson from Austin for a stem cell transplant.

Here, Dr. Betul Oran initially had planned for me to undergo an allogeneic stem cell transplant, which would have used a healthy donor’s stem cells to replace my damaged cells. Unfortunately, the two donors who matched me in the bone marrow registry weren’t available to donate. So, we turned to the MD Anderson Cord Blood Bank, which collects umbilical cords donated by parents following new births. Thankfully, we found three good matches.

My cord blood transplant

I received my cord blood transplant on June 4, 2015. The actual transplant was very anti-climactic, but the preparation and recovery were brutal.

To prepare my body for the transplant and treat the cancer, I underwent high-dose chemotherapy and total body radiation. The worst side effect I experienced during this period was mucositis. My throat hurt so badly that I felt like I was swallowing knives. I couldn’t eat for days.

After my transplant, I became extremely weak. At times, I couldn’t even get out of bed. I knew physical activity was important to my recovery, so on the days I felt a little better, I pushed myself to get up and walk the halls multiple times a day. MD Anderson’s nursing staff were so encouraging. They give you a sticker every time you make a lap around the hall, which played into my competitive nature. Of course I wanted to have the most stickers!

New goals

I was hospitalized for about two weeks after my transplant, and had to stay in Houston near MD Anderson for 100 days in case I had any complications.

Once I was discharged, I walked as often as I could and slowly built up to jogging/running. It took a long time to rebuild my strength. I set a goal to run a 5K one year after my transplant.

By July 2016, I was strong enough to do that. Don’t get me wrong – it still hurt. But I did it. And every day after, I continued to get stronger. In fact, after I received clearance in March 2017 to swim in open water, I began training for sprint triathlons, which consist of a 750-meter swim, a 12-mile bike ride and a 3-mile run. I finished three sprint races last year.

Life through a different lens

Cancer threw my plans off course, but it’s shown me different ways to enjoy life.

Before my diagnosis, my husband and I spent our weekends training on our bikes for 5-plus hours. Now, we watch movies, do yard work, have dinner with friends and even take leisurely bike rides.

The key to life after cancer is to focus on what you can do – not what you can’t. I may never be able to reach the level of fitness I had before my diagnosis, but I can still be active in others ways. I find joy in that. 

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