Lea White is a survivor in every sense of the word. The U.S. Marines veteran left home at age 16 and developed a stubborn determination to overcome adversity along the way.
She’d just gotten a divorce, moved to California, suffered the loss of two pets and was drowning in work when life dealt her another blow: an acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) diagnosis in April 2004.
“I’ve always been a survivor, and so this was just another one of those things,” she says. “My philosophy was to take it one test at a time, and not to read up on it and let the statistics scare me.”
Lea underwent several rounds of chemotherapy before receiving an autologous stem cell transplant using her own healthy stem cells that September.
That briefly put her AML into remission.
An AML recurrence
But in 2005, a month after Lea had moved to Beeville, Texas, a repeat bone marrow biopsy showed atypical myeoid blast cells. This made her doctors suspicious that she had what they called “minimal residual disease.” They said it was still too early to treat with chemotherapy.
But that changed five months later. In March 2006, Lea went to get a blood test after experiencing what she thought was a stomach flu. “Before I even got back to my office, the hospital called for me to come back for a retest,” she recalls. The doctors said her platelet counts were off.
“I immediately contacted MD Anderson, and they told me I needed to be in their emergency room that day,” Lea says.
She checked into the hospital that night.
Lea’s AML treatment at MD Anderson
Lea’s doctor recommended she undergo a second stem cell transplant. He also suggested she enroll in a clinical trial in which she’d receive more chemotherapy, even if her second stem cell transplant was successful. The decision was an easy one for Lea.
“‘If I gotta go out, I may as well go out helping someone else,’” she recalls telling her brother, who’d accompanied her to the doctor’s appointment.
In July 2006, Lea received a second stem cell transplant, this time using stem cells from an anonymous donor. Afterwards, she underwent chemotherapy.
Her AML has been in remission ever since then.
A reason to celebrate
Lea just celebrated her 10-year anniversary of showing no evidence of disease. To mark the occasion, she went skydiving in Belen, New Mexico. Now, she’s preparing to crew a hot air balloon for the fourth time.
For anyone who knows her, that’s a huge deal.
“Before leukemia, I was debilitatingly afraid of heights -- so much so that I was driving down Interstate 5 in California and found out that I had to cross the Coronado Bridge, and I had to pull my car over and let my passenger drive us over the bridge,” she says. “I got over my fear of heights after cancer. I went up in a hot air balloon the first time and I said, ‘Wow, I’d rather croak falling out of this hot air balloon than I would have leukemia.’”
Nothing is impossible
Lea thinks her healthy lifestyle played a part in her successful AML treatment, but she credits MD Anderson with saving her life.
“If you want to live, find your way to MD Anderson,” she says. “If you want half a chance, especially if it’s something complex, MD Anderson is the only place to be.”
As she tells others facing cancer, it’s important to celebrate every milestone – and to look for the positive in your situation.
“Take it one test at a time,” she says. “You can get through this. You can do it. Nothing is impossible.”