Leukemia: Success stories?

My father in law was diagnosed with leukemia this past weekend. It is the acute myelogenous type. We have talked with some of his doctors, and I did a little research on the net, (i.e. www.leukemia.org), so I understand more about the disease than I did a few days ago. It’s fast acting and needs to be treated now. He starts chemotherapy today. I was hoping to hear a few success stories. What should we expect? How long did recovery take? Is chemotherapy the only way to go?

A little history on him: He is 60 years old, and was very healthy until he started feeling tired a few months ago. When he went to the doctor last week, they found he had a heart murmur, and since then he has been experiencing extremely high fevers. That’s when they admitted him to the hospital for tests. As of now, the hospital plans to keep in as an inpatient for about a month.

There are two basic routes to take in treating the various leukemias.

1.) Chemotherapy, which is the default treatment mode. These drugs can beat back the cancerous white blood cells, but only for a while. And they have serious side effects, so the quality of life while on them can range from tolerable to very bad.

Another drawback of chemo drugs is that at some point, patients will most likely relapse. In other words, the drugs can slow down the progress of the disease – sometimes very dramatically – but rarely do they wipe out every single cancer cell (i.e., a total cure).

2.) A blood stem cell transplant (SCT). These used to be called bone marrow transplants, but now the blood stem cells in bone marrow are also being collected from umbilical cords and from the circulating blood of donors.

To prepare for an SCT, the patient gets a VERY, VERY high dose of chemo – so high that it wipes out your entire immune system. Then, the patient receives the donated blood stem cells to restore his/her immune system.

The drawback is that the intense pre-transplant chemo can kill you. But if it works, you get a whole new blood-manufacturing mecanism functioning in your bone marrow – one that is no longer making cancerous white blood cells.

At age 60, your FIL may not have the physical strength to tolerate the intense prep required for an SCT. How is his health otherwise? Is he a smoker, a heavy drinker? (Weak organ function is one factor that cause doctors to NOT want to perform an SCT.)

On the other hand, if your FIL has the body of a 45-50 year old, he may be a fine candidate for an SCT. And, he may qualify for a “mini-transplant” which is one that uses less rigorous pre-transplant chemo. (Doctors call these non-myeloablative transplants – so do your Internet searching on both terms.)

Getting an SCT also depends highly on finding a matching donor. Your FIL should get himself and his immediate family members tissue typed. If he has a family member with the same (or VERY close) tissue type, that person can be a donor.

If no matching family member is found, you can search the volunteer donor registry maintained by the National Marrow Donor Program (my employer).

I hope your FIL is being seen by a Hematologist at an institution that has a stem cell transplant program. That way, he can hear the full range of options available to him.

I wish you the best of luck.

P.S. A good patient resource is BMT InfoNet.

I don’t really know much about it (certainly nothing compared to Spiff) but I have a success story.

My best friend, now 22, was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia at the age of 15. She was treated right away with chemo and radiation, and her family was checked for a bone marrow match. As luck would have it, her brother was a perfect match - it could only have been better if it had been some of HER OWN, stored cells! She received the transplant the day before her Sweet Sixteen, and then spent the next couple of months in quarantine as he immune system rebuilt itself.

She missed a good part of school, but with tutors and the option to fast-track through her OACs, she still graduated High School on time, and went to University. Her time in the hospital made her decide she wanted to be a nurse. She graduated this past April as a Registered Nurse, and is now working, oddly enough, in an oncology ward (not her initial plan, but she’s happy there anyways).

Throughout it all, she stayed cheerful and positive, and was still always ready to try and lend an ear to other people who might have been ill or having problems. A close family friend of hers succummed to multiple forms of cancer that he’d been battling for years while she was quarantined and ill, and she felt guilty that it was him, and not her, that passed away (not because she was suicidal, but she wanted him to be healthy THAT much). I have never met anyone as brave and as caring as she is, and I know that she is a fantastic nurse.
I don’t know how things will go for your dad - things are still very early, and I don’t know much about this anyways. But despite the cancer, things CAN have a bright side. Good luck to your dad, and take care of yourself too!