Leukemia treatment teaches survivor how to live in the moment

Dana MacFarlane is still in awe of her sudden onset of acute myeloid leukemia in July 2017.

“I take blood tests on a routine basis because I get hormone
therapy, and the week before I got diagnosed, my white blood cell
count was normal,” she says. “My white blood cells started spewing out
the week I got sick. It happened just like that.”

In fact, Dana had spent the past summer eating clean foods and
exercising vigorously. At 48, she was the fittest she’d ever been.
Then in late July, she developed a fever and started experiencing
abnormal chest pains. At first, she attributed the symptoms to a
colonoscopy and endoscopy she’d just undergone. But eventually, her
chest pain became too intense to ignore.

Coming to MD Anderson for acute
myeloid leukemia treatment

Dana went to the emergency room, where the doctors first did an EKG
to make sure it wasn’t her heart. Afterwards, they did a blood test,
which immediately showed her white cells were out of control. “The
doctors immediately called MD Anderson
before I even knew what was going on and said we have a situation
that’s beyond our control, and MD Anderson
said get her down here by ambulance tonight,” Dana recalls.

Dana was transported from the hospital in Nederland, Texas, to the
MD Anderson Emergency Center, where a
care team was waiting for her. She started chemotherapy right away, and Courtney
DiNardo, M.D.
, prepared her for what was to come.

“Dr. DiNardo told me I would lose my hair and discussed the side effects I needed to look for,” Dana
recalls. “She said it’s going to take every bit of strength that you
have to get through this but said, ‘You’re going to do OK.’”

Coping with the side effects of a stem cell transplant

DiNardo was right. Dana lost her hair, but she went into remission
just 28 days after her first chemotherapy infusion. However, she still
needed to complete a second round and undergo a stem cell transplant in order to reduce her
chances of a recurrence. So on Nov. 1, 2017, Dana received the stem
cells that her brother had donated.

“It’s a mental battlefield to say the least,” she says of her
transplant experience. “If you don’t have somewhere to go and
somewhere to take those thoughts, it’s going to be rough. Personally,
that’s where my faith came in.”

The chemotherapy cocktail of Busulfan, Cladribine and Fludarabine
that Dana had taken before her transplant caused diarrhea, vomiting, thrush on the inside of her
mouth and esophagus; it also burned her skin in sensitive areas.
However, she was determined to do everything she could to recover.

“I heard so many people wouldn’t eat and they lost their strength,
so I made myself eat as much as I could stand. Even if it took two
hours to take down a protein drink, I did it,” she says. “The nurses
also encouraged me to get up and walk around. Sometimes, getting up
meant sitting on the side of my bed.”

And when she hit her lowest points, she turned to her family and faith.

“Each of my girls had picked scripture that dealt with God’s
strength. They picked scriptures that dealt with suffering and how
momentary it is compared to eternity, and I remember clinging to those
words,” she says.

Embracing every moment after leukemia treatment

Dana stayed in the hospital for 20 days after her stem cell
transplant, though she’s still receiving blood and fluids. But with
the worst of her treatment behind her, she’s embracing life with
renewed sense of purpose.

“It’s not worth it to be angry for a day, especially at someone we
love,” she says. “When we are in today, that’s all we’re promised, so
we’ve got to live in the moment and be thankful we have it.”

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