In 2007, I noticed the lymph nodes under my jaw were swollen. But it took more than two years and a routine trip to the dermatologist to get my diagnosis in March 2010: chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). I was only 49 years old.
My CLL showed a 17p abnormality. This meant the cancer would probably spread more rapidly, be more resistant to treatment and have shorter periods of remission.
Two of my colleagues at home in Raleigh, North Carolina, were leukemia patients at MD Anderson, and I listened when they suggested I go there, too.
My CLL treatment at MD Anderson
I felt blessed that I got assigned to Michael Keating, M.D., whom I'd read about in my CLL research. Dr. Keating specializes in 17p cases. At that point, he'd been treating leukemia for nearly 40 years and had published groundbreaking research on CLL treatment.
As expected, my disease progressed rapidly. Dr. Keating ordered a course of fludarabine- cyclophosphamide-rituximab therapy, which took place in early 2011. Unfortunately, that only partly destroyed the cancer. I rested and recovered while Dr. Keating plotted our next move.
My b-cell lymphoma diagnosis
While I was recovering in September 2011, I was diagnosed with pneumonia and underwent X-rays. That's how the doctors spotted a mass in my lung, which turned out to be diffuse large b-cell lymphoma. My CLL had mutated into an aggressive lymphoma -- a scary development known as a Richter's transformation of CLL. Very few Richter's patients survive more than two years.
I received my diagnosis on a Friday in late September. Dr. Keating ordered me to travel to Houston by Monday morning to start treatment. I'd receive two rounds of hyper-CVAD chemo followed by an allogeneic stem cell transplant from my perfectly matched older sister. I received the first round of chemo in Houston and the second in Raleigh. Right after Thanksgiving, I moved into a corporate apartment in Houston so I could undergo the transplant.
Everything worked exactly as Dr. Keating had planned. In April 2012, I heard those magic words -- "cancer-free." All I could say was, "Thank you, Lord, and thank you, Dr. Keating!"
Pushing the boundaries of what survivors can achieve
As a grateful and very healthy survivor of two blood cancers, I have devoted myself to pushing the boundaries of what cancer survivors can achieve. I am now affiliated with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training, which raises money for cancer research through endurance events.
Since running a 10K in fall 2012, I have completed 300 miles of cycling events, a half-marathon and a 250-mile backpacking trip along the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains. That trip included carrying a 50-pound pack and sleeping in the wilderness for 27 nights.
This year, I completed what I dubbed my Triple Play. It consisted of a half-marathon in mid-April (my first ever), a 200-mile bike ride in mid-May and a 10-mile hike in Yosemite National Park in mid-June. Thanks to some very generous friends, I raised more than $30,000 for blood cancer research.
Focusing on the positives in life after cancer
These endurance and adventure events are part of what I like to call my "new normal" after surviving cancer. Sure, there are challenges like neuropathy in my feet, strange illnesses because my immune system is not yet fully mature and getting immunoglobulin infusions every six weeks. But I choose to focus on the positives.
As a result of my cancer, I felt a calling to reach out to other patients and just be a resource and a friend.
When I talk to newly diagnosed cancer patients, I offer tips on what I think the essentials of survival were and continue to be for me. I tell them the 4 "Fs" -- faith, family, friends and fitness -- got me through cancer. For me, the greatest of these is faith, because as Jim Valvano said, cancer "cannot touch my soul."
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and b-cell lymphoma are two of the cancers MD Anderson is focusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. Learn more about our CLL Moon Shot and our B-cell Lymphoma Moon Shot.