In the summer of 2013, Debbie Felix-Dejean was facing her third round of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and she was not optimistic.
The Caribbean expatriate had received her first Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis in 2004, while living in South Africa. Her second diagnosis came in 2010, while Debbie was living in Florida. Three years later, she found a lump in her left armpit.
“Usually, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is considered the best type of cancer to have because it’s easy to treat and has a fantastic cure rate,” Debbie says. “But I had already been through this two times before, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is it.’”
Clinical trial offers new chemotherapy combination
Fearing a grim prognosis, Debbie waited a few months before seeking treatment. But at a friend’s insistence, she finally made an appointment at MD Anderson. Here, Debbie saw Jason Westin, M.D. He confirmed her self-diagnosis, but he also gave her hope.
Debbie learned that she was eligible for a Phase II clinical trial under Yago Nieto, M.D., Ph.D. The clinical trial involved a new combination of high-dose chemotherapy drugs (gemcitabine, busulfan and melphalan), in preparation for an autologous stem cell transplant.
“The drugs were not new, but the combination was,” she says. “So when I was given the option for a clinical trial, I took it.”
Debbie began the clinical trial in Sept. 2013. Her autologous stem cell transplant took place in Dec. 2013.
“Christmas Day was the last day of my infusion,” she says. “It was the best gift ever.”
Extraordinary complication delays stem cell transplant recovery
Debbie initially did so well after the stem cell transplant that she enrolled in a master’s degree program the following August. But a month into her studies, she started feeling sick again and had to drop out.
Bloodwork revealed that her platelet level was only at about 5,000 — far below the normal range of 150,000–300,000. Debbie began receiving transfusions, sometimes twice a day. Each one boosted her levels temporarily, but then they plummeted again.
“The doctors said my body was rejecting its own cells from the stem cell transplant, which was something they hadn’t seen before,” Debbie says. “Eventually, my platelet count got down to zero. I was bleeding in my mouth and had bruises all over my body, despite getting transfusions every day.”
Doctors performed a splenectomy to reverse that trend, but it didn’t work. They also tried a drug called aminocaproic acid, which caused temporary paralysis in Debbie’s legs. Finally, they recommended another stem cell transplant. Debbie resisted, but by this time she had been in the hospital for five months. She was also running out of options.
“Dr. Michael Kroll said, ‘Look. We cannot continue to support you like this. It’s just not sustainable,’” she says. “That was a hard pill to swallow, but I finally agreed.”
Preparing for a second stem cell transplant
The doctors pulled Debbie off of all her medications in preparation for the stem cell transplant. She reached out to her siblings and her older brother was identified as a good match. He began making arrangements to come to Houston. Meanwhile, her platelet levels began to improve.
But while her brother was trying to get a visa to come here, he was murdered. “Just the week before, he had called me from the Caribbean and said, ‘Don’t worry, Debbie. I’m going to take care of this. You’re going to be better,’” she recalls.
An unexpected remission
Debbie was devastated. She and her brother had been very close. And none of her other five siblings was a good match. But her platelet levels continued to climb, so she postponed the second transplant.
Eventually, Debbie’s platelet levels reached a critical milestone, and she was discharged from the hospital. Debbie never did have the second stem cell transplant. Instead, she slowly recovered and regained her strength. Today, she still has a little bit of neuropathy, but otherwise, she shows no evidence of disease.
“Some things you just can’t explain,” Debbie says. “My case was one in a billion. That rejection was not supposed to happen. But I received incredible care at MD Anderson. I don’t know that I would have survived if I had not come here. I feel very fortunate.”
Advice for other stem cell transplant candidates
Recently, Debbie signed up to volunteer through myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one support program for patients and caregivers.
The three-time Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor already knows what she’ll say to patients facing a stem cell transplant.
“It’s going to be hard,” she says. “But, you are strong enough to go through it. The treatment doesn’t last forever. You will get better. And when you do, you will not even remember how hard it was. You will only remember that you had it, and you will be grateful. I am really happy that I made it. And to save my life, I would do it again.”
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