When the cancer comes back


Ronni Gordon

As my sister drove me to the hospital on a wintery night after my leukemia returned for the second time, I said over and over, "I'm never going to see my grandchildren. I'm never going to see my grandchildren."I thought I was at the end of the line. I had already had three bone marrow transplants, each preceded by intensive chemotherapy, when my doctor told me that I had relapsed again.On the night of Dec. 21, 2008, I had felt a little better after feeling sick for several days. My daughter and I were making cookies. Then I fell to the floor.After she helped get me to bed, I took my temperature and discovered that I had a fever. I called Dr. Edwin Alyea, my physician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and he said he was sorry to tell me on the phone, but the pathology report on my latest bone marrow biopsy showed that I had relapsed.He said he would understand if I didn't want to go through treatment again, but if I wanted to proceed, he had an idea for a new regimen.I wanted to live. I wanted to see my three children, 16, 19 and 23, continue growing up into the wonderful adults I knew they would be. I wanted to walk my Labrador retriever, play tennis, run a road race and return to my job as a newspaper reporter.Dr. Alyea had said to go to the emergency room and get admitted, and then he would come see me and there would be a plan. It turns out I had pneumonia, so they had to treat that before they did anything else.I was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2003 after feeling extremely tired while running a 10-kilometer road race near my home in South Hadley, Mass. Thinking I was probably anemic, not eating right or training poorly, I went to my internist. He said my blood counts were abnormal and sent me for a bone marrow biopsy. I soon learned that I had AML, a fast-moving cancer of the blood. The "What, me?" response was pretty strong. I ate well and exercised, I didn't smoke and I was slender. But I had to accept it when, within about a week, I found myself in a bed at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, about 90 miles from home. Under the care of doctors from Dana-Farber, I received three rounds of in-patient chemotherapy, with rest periods in between at home, and then my first bone marrow transplant.It was an autologous transplant, meaning they used my own new, clean stem cells, removed after two rounds of chemotherapy and then returned to me in a rescue mission after a third and powerful round basically cleared out my bone marrow.I was in remission, but my first Dana-Farber doctor, Daniel J. DeAngelo, told me that remission is not cure. He said that after two years you break out the Champagne, but only after five years can you use the word cure.After two, then three-and-a-half years passed and normalcy wrapped its arms around me, I got another shock. The leukemia was back. I learned this just after I played in, and won, a doubles match at a tennis tournament. "Leukemia is curable," DeAngelo said. "We'll get you back on your feet.""I am on my feet," I thought to myself as I left his office. And then I burst into tears.This time I would get an allogenic transplant, with stem cells coming from a donor. After the leukemia cells are killed by chemotherapy and healthy donor cells fill your bone marrow, the donor cells patrol your body to fight off any leukemia that might try to sneak back in.But after six months, I learned a new term, graft failure: The donor cells had packed up and left, leaving my bone marrow almost empty. The cause was uncertain, and the donor was a good match who agreed to try again. After more chemotherapy, I had transplant No. 3.Six months later, I had that second relapse.There were so many things to worry about that a nurse who called me Nervous Nellie told me over and over, "Don't worry, they'll figure it out." And as you will see, the incredible doctors did just that.I had a new donor and a new chemotherapy regimen consisting of three drugs. One of them, Atgam, is made from rabbit serum, and the nurses called it shake and bake, which is exactly what I did while I received it intravenously.The transplant, on Jan. 31, 2009, went smoothly, but a few weeks later, I developed a severe blood infection, went into kidney failure and lapsed into a coma. One night, it was touch and go. My ex-husband brought my daughter and told my sons to come quickly and to bring their dark suits. Dr. Alyea met with them and said that there were many things wrong with me, but they would tackle them one by one.And somehow I struggled to the surface, confused, scared and unable to speak. My legs were swollen like tree trunks, and I needed two nurses to turn me over. The nurses, who ranged from kind and gentle to kind and commanding, helped me pull through. I regained my voice when a nurse nicknamed Big Red asked me, "What's my name?""Lisa," I answered in a grainy whisper."Say it loud!" she said.It took all of my strength to say, "Lisa, Lisa, Lisa!" But from then on I could speak.After extended sessions of dialysis, my kidneys returned to normal. I was in bed for more than a month. When I got up, slowly and needing oxygen at first just to sit on the edge of the bed, I had to learn how to walk again. Total time in the hospital: three and a half months.Recovery has been long and slow. Because you are like a baby with no immune system, during the first year you can't go into crowded places, and when you do go anywhere, you need to wear a mask and gloves. When I got back to walking, I was so wobbly I was like a Gumby doll. One day I fell over backwards, hitting my head on the pavement and earning a trip to the emergency room.Two years after my transplant, I met my donor, Denise. Donors come from all over the world, but in an example of one degree of separation, Denise lives in New Jersey and is in a book group with one of my friends. Like all donors, she did an incredibly generous thing. We hugged and grew teary as I thanked her multiple times and she thanked me for giving her a chance to save a life.Now I am pretty much back to myself, despite graft-versus-host disease, a common complication after transplant in which the "graft" recognizes the "host" as foreign and attacks it. I don't have a bad case, but I do take big handfuls of pills and visit Dana-Farber for frequent check-ups. I watched my daughter graduate from high school and go to college. I was at my middle son's college graduation and shared my older son's joy when he told me that he gave his wonderful girlfriend an engagement ring.I rejoined my tennis team and, with my longtime doubles partner, won my first match back, an incredible thrill. I worked back up to running, which took a while, because when I first tried, my feet felt like they were made of lead. The Saturday after Thanksgiving this year, my son and I joined some 3,000 other runners in a scenic six-mile crossrace called the Talking Turkey.I couldn't go back to work fulltime, but I have been doing freelance writing.I am left with this question: How do you deal with it when you know that the same bus can hit you twice? You worry that all sorts of things – mainly fatigue - can signal a relapse. I talk to myself. "Maybe you're tired because you just played two hours of tennis." Oh, right.The passage of time helps. So does hitting the ball on the sweet spot, or doing yoga, or feeling my feet hit the ground when I run, or sitting on the couch watching TV with whichever child is home, or watching the dog lie in the sun at my feet while I write or read. I laugh a lot. Sometimes when I roll over in bed, I flash back to when I couldn't do it myself, and I am so grateful to do that simple thing that I never would have thought about before.I try to take it one step at a time, appreciating all that I have and looking forward to the good things.

Born and raised in New York, Ronni Gordon lives in South Hadley, Mass., where she raised her three children, Ben, 26; Joe, 22; and Katie, 19. She is a graduate of Vassar College with a master's degree in journalism from Boston University. She spent most of her career in daily journalism as a features writer at the Republican, in Springfield, Mass., and has been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. She now spends her time freelancing, writing her blog (runnerwrites.blogspot.com) and working on her tennis game.

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