I might be the only MD Anderson patient who never had cancer. Or, at least, that’s how I felt on that winter day in 2008 when I first entered the Main Building and began my MD Anderson journey.
Actually, my journey began 2 1/2 years earlier, when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). I was a distance runner, and when I started tripping for no reason, I knew something was wrong. After a few months, my symptoms escalated to numbness in my toes, strange tingling sensations and bouts of dizziness. In the fall of 2005, I received my MS diagnosis.
It didn’t feel real at first. I was young and healthy! My husband and I had three little boys ages four and younger. How could I be sick? But reality soon began to sink in. After only a few months, I could no longer run. My neurologist changed my medication several times, hoping that something would work, but by fall 2007, we had run out of options. I was walking with a cane, but even that was difficult. I woke up every morning afraid to find what else I could no longer do. My MS was extremely aggressive, and my husband and I both knew that unless a miracle occurred, I wouldn’t be around to see our little boys grow up.
The stem cell transplant clinical trial that gave my family hope
Our miracle came in the form of a clinical trial called HALT-MS, a joint effort between the neurology department at Baylor College of Medicine and MD Anderson’s Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy Center. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks and destroys the myelin sheathing around the nerves, especially in the brain and spinal cord. My doctors hoped that with an autologous stem cell transplant, my immune system could be “reset” to no longer treat my nerve cells as foreign invaders. The clinical trial was experimental, and any kind of stem cell transplant is risky. But MD Anderson was the best place in the world to be, and I knew we were doing the right thing.
I was admitted to the hospital for my transplant on July 4, 2008. I won’t lie — it was grueling. There were times when I didn’t know if I could endure another moment. I had a bad reaction to a couple chemotherapy drugs. I became very sick and couldn’t stop throwing up, no matter what kind of anti-nausea medications I took.
But I was right — MD Anderson was the best place in the world for me. I will never forget the nurses who tended to me day and night, including one who prayed with me during some particularly hard moments. The physical therapist who came to drag me out of bed every afternoon to attempt to walk the halls was another bright spot. My physician’s assistant was incredibly kind, and I could not have asked for a better doctor than Uday Popat, M.D. I lost nearly 20 pounds and needed blood transfusions even after I went home. My sisters, mother and in-laws flew in from all around the country to take turns caring for me and my boys so that my husband could go back to work. Eventually, I could eat without throwing up, and my hair began to grow back. I started to feel like my old self.
Life after my stem cell transplant
It has now been eight years since my stem cell transplant, and I am so happy to say that it was a success! I have not had a single MS relapse since 2008.
MS is a pretty unforgiving disease; some of the nerve damage that occurred before my transplant is permanent. I probably won’t ever run again, and I mostly get around with forearm crutches or a wheelchair for long distances.
But my rapid decline in the months before my transplant was effectively halted. That is more than enough for me. My boys are growing up, and I’ve been there every step of the way.
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