Autologous stem cell transplant survivor finds hope after third lymphoma diagnosis

In the summer of 2013, Debbie Felix-Dejean was facing her third round
of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and she was not optimistic.

The Caribbean expatriate had received her first Hodgkin’s lymphoma
diagnosis in 2004, while living in South Africa. Her second diagnosis
came in 2010, while Debbie was living in Florida. Three years later,
she found a lump in her left armpit.

“Usually, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is considered the best type of cancer
to have because it’s easy to treat and has a fantastic cure rate,”
Debbie says. “But I had already been through this two times before,
and I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is it.’”

Clinical trial offers new chemotherapy combination

Fearing a grim prognosis, Debbie waited a few months before seeking
treatment. But at a friend’s insistence, she finally made an
appointment at MD Anderson. Here, Debbie
saw Jason Westin, M.D. He confirmed her
self-diagnosis, but he also gave her hope.

Debbie learned that she was eligible for a Phase II clinical trial under Yago Nieto, M.D., Ph.D. The clinical trial
involved a new combination of high-dose chemotherapy drugs (gemcitabine, busulfan and
melphalan), in preparation for an autologous stem cell transplant.

“The drugs were not new, but the combination was,” she says. “So
when I was given the option for a clinical trial, I took it.”

Debbie began the clinical trial in Sept. 2013. Her autologous stem cell transplant took place in
Dec. 2013.

“Christmas Day was the last day of my infusion,” she says. “It was
the best gift ever.”

Extraordinary complication delays stem cell transplant recovery

Debbie initially did so well after the stem cell transplant that she
enrolled in a master’s degree program the following August. But a
month into her studies, she started feeling sick again and had to drop out.

Bloodwork revealed that her platelet level was only at about 5,000 —
far below the normal range of 150,000–300,000. Debbie began receiving
transfusions, sometimes twice a day. Each one boosted her levels
temporarily, but then they plummeted again.

“The doctors said my body was rejecting its own cells from the stem
cell transplant, which was something they hadn’t seen before,” Debbie
says. “Eventually, my platelet count got down to zero. I was bleeding
in my mouth and had bruises all over my body, despite getting
transfusions every day.”

Doctors performed a splenectomy to reverse that trend, but it didn’t
work. They also tried a drug called aminocaproic acid, which caused
temporary paralysis in Debbie’s legs. Finally, they recommended
another stem cell transplant. Debbie resisted, but by this time she
had been in the hospital for five months. She was also running out of options.

Dr. Michael Kroll said, ‘Look. We cannot
continue to support you like this. It’s just not sustainable,’” she
says. “That was a hard pill to swallow, but I finally agreed.”

Preparing for a second stem cell transplant

The doctors pulled Debbie off of all her medications in preparation
for the stem cell transplant. She reached out to her siblings and her
older brother was identified as a good match. He began making
arrangements to come to Houston. Meanwhile, her platelet levels began
to improve.

But while her brother was trying to get a visa to come here, he was
murdered. “Just the week before, he had called me from the Caribbean
and said, ‘Don’t worry, Debbie. I’m going to take care of this. You’re
going to be better,’” she recalls.

An unexpected remission

Debbie was devastated. She and her brother had been very close. And
none of her other five siblings was a good match. But her platelet
levels continued to climb, so she postponed the second transplant.

Eventually, Debbie’s platelet levels reached a critical milestone,
and she was discharged from the hospital. Debbie never did have the
second stem cell transplant. Instead, she slowly recovered and
regained her strength. Today, she still has a little bit of neuropathy, but otherwise, she shows no evidence
of disease.

“Some things you just can’t explain,” Debbie says. “My case was one
in a billion. That rejection was not supposed to happen. But I
received incredible care at MD Anderson. I
don’t know that I would have survived if I had not come here. I feel
very fortunate.”

Advice for other stem cell transplant candidates

Recently, Debbie signed up to volunteer through myCancerConnectionMD
Anderson’s
 one-on-one support program for patients and caregivers.

The three-time Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor already knows what she’ll
say to patients facing a stem cell transplant.

“It’s going to be hard,” she says. “But, you are strong enough to go
through it. The treatment doesn’t last forever. You will get better.
And when you do, you will not even remember how hard it was. You will
only remember that you had it, and you will be grateful. I am really
happy that I made it. And to save my life, I would do it again.”

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by
calling 1-877-632-6789.