“I take blood tests on a routine basis because I get hormone therapy, and the week before I got diagnosed, my white blood cell count was normal,” she says. “My white blood cells started spewing out the week I got sick. It happened just like that.”
In fact, Dana had spent the past summer eating clean foods and exercising vigorously. At 48, she was the fittest she’d ever been. Then in late July, she developed a fever and started experiencing abnormal chest pains. At first, she attributed the symptoms to a colonoscopy and endoscopy she’d just undergone. But eventually, her chest pain became too intense to ignore.
Coming to MD Anderson for acute myeloid leukemia treatment
Dana went to the emergency room, where the doctors first did an EKG to make sure it wasn’t her heart. Afterwards, they did a blood test, which immediately showed her white cells were out of control. “The doctors immediately called MD Anderson before I even knew what was going on and said we have a situation that’s beyond our control, and MD Anderson said get her down here by ambulance tonight,” Dana recalls.
“Dr. DiNardo told me I would lose my hair and discussed the side effects I needed to look for,” Dana recalls. “She said it’s going to take every bit of strength that you have to get through this but said, ‘You’re going to do OK.’”
Coping with the side effects of a stem cell transplant
DiNardo was right. Dana lost her hair, but she went into remission just 28 days after her first chemotherapy infusion. However, she still needed to complete a second round and undergo a stem cell transplant in order to reduce her chances of a recurrence. So on Nov. 1, 2017, Dana received the stem cells that her brother had donated.
“It’s a mental battlefield to say the least,” she says of her transplant experience. “If you don’t have somewhere to go and somewhere to take those thoughts, it’s going to be rough. Personally, that’s where my faith came in.”
The chemotherapy cocktail of Busulfan, Cladribine and Fludarabine that Dana had taken before her transplant caused diarrhea, vomiting, thrush on the inside of her mouth and esophagus; it also burned her skin in sensitive areas. However, she was determined to do everything she could to recover.
“I heard so many people wouldn’t eat and they lost their strength, so I made myself eat as much as I could stand. Even if it took two hours to take down a protein drink, I did it,” she says. “The nurses also encouraged me to get up and walk around. Sometimes, getting up meant sitting on the side of my bed.”
And when she hit her lowest points, she turned to her family and faith.
“Each of my girls had picked scripture that dealt with God’s strength. They picked scriptures that dealt with suffering and how momentary it is compared to eternity, and I remember clinging to those words,” she says.
Embracing every moment after leukemia treatment
Dana stayed in the hospital for 20 days after her stem cell transplant, though she’s still receiving blood and fluids. But with the worst of her treatment behind her, she’s embracing life with renewed sense of purpose.
“It’s not worth it to be angry for a day, especially at someone we love,” she says. “When we are in today, that’s all we’re promised, so we’ve got to live in the moment and be thankful we have it.”