Leukemia survivor: How I knew MD Anderson was the right choice
Before I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December 2018, I’d never heard of MD Anderson. And cancer doesn’t run in my family, so I didn’t need to know anything about cancer — much less cancer hospitals.
That made my decision to go to MD Anderson for leukemia treatment really hard in some respects. For one thing, it’s 822 miles from my home. For another, I have three kids, who were 16, 14, and almost 9 at the time. And before my diagnosis, I’d never lived outside of Georgia, or even been to Texas.
But in other ways, the choice was actually pretty easy. Because once I got to MD Anderson, I felt very comfortable. Its doctors really know what they’re talking about. And if I stayed there, I knew that MD Anderson would give me the best possible chance I had of long-term survival.
Not just a little fish in a big pond
I’ll never forget the day I arrived at MD Anderson. I felt like a little fish in a big pond. Because my first thought on seeing it was, “Holy crap. This place is huge!” And when I walked out of the elevators in the main building onto the eighth floor, the Leukemia Center was crazy busy (this was back in the days before COVID-19).
But both my leukemia specialist, Dr. Hagop Kantarjian, and my stem cell transplant specialist, Dr. Richard Champlin, turned out to be amazing. So did their nurses and other team members. They are all such sweet and caring people, with truly outstanding bedside manners. They never once made me feel like just a number.
From running marathons to an acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis
I thought I was perfectly healthy before my diagnosis. At the time, I was only 35 and a marathon runner. So, finding out I had cancer at all was pretty shocking. I had no symptoms. The only reason my condition even came to light was because my bloodwork was abnormal during a routine physical. My doctor finally sent me to a hematologist after monitoring and retesting me over the course of several months.
Initially, I sought leukemia treatment close to home. But when two rounds of chemotherapy failed to put me in remission, a friend of a friend referred me to MD Anderson. There, Dr. Kantarjian put me on a third chemotherapy regimen that finally made my cancer undetectable.
Afterwards, I had a stem cell transplant under Dr. Champlin. He told me I could either have six months of “maintenance” chemotherapy next, or I could do a different type of chemotherapy through a clinical trial under Dr. Uday Popat that would last two years. I asked Dr. Champlin what he would recommend. He said the clinical trial, so that’s what I did.
Facing neuropathy and anxiety after my leukemia treatment
My stem cell transplant took place on May 29, 2019. I finished chemotherapy around May 2, 2020, because I had to drop out of the clinical trial early due to neutropenia. I only completed six of the 12 rounds called for, but I’ve still shown no evidence of disease since April 29, 2021.
Today, the only side effect I still have is a little bit of neuropathy. But a lot of other cancer survivors have far worse problems than I do, so I don’t complain. Compared to theirs, my issues are miniscule.
Actually, my biggest problem right now is probably anxiety. Before I started chemotherapy at MD Anderson, doctors there detected a genetic mutation in my tissue samples called TP53. It puts me at much higher risk of a relapse. So, even though Dr. Champlin says I can start spacing my checkups farther apart now, I still come back to see him every three months. Because PTSD is real. And I want to make sure if I ever do relapse, we catch it early.
From totally unaware to MD Anderson’s biggest fan
It’s kind of funny how I went from never having heard of MD Anderson at all to hearing about it all the time. The minute I even mention it now, people start telling me stories — either about their own experiences there or about those of others they know.
I didn’t know about MD Anderson’s great reputation before I went there, either, but I do now. And I know today that I made the right choice. I also know that I went to the absolute best place — both to get rid of my cancer and to keep it gone. That’s why I tell anybody who mentions cancer to get to Houston, ASAP. When you first find out you have cancer, it can feel like your life is over. But it’s not. I am living proof.