Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Changing the Facts

At the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Light the Night awards event a few weeks ago, I met a beautiful woman about my age. From across the hall, crowded with people sipping wine from plastic cups and munching on bruschetta, crudite, and cheese cubes, I'd noticed a white lily, signifying survivorship, pinned to her blouse. My reaction: "Wow, is she gorgeous. How can someone so beautiful have cancer? Right, cancer attacks you on the inside."

I introduced myself to V. and her boyfriend. She has a form of Non Hodgkin Lymphoma, which her doctors think may have been caused by the treatments she received to cure a childhood cancer. She is not yet in remission. We chatted for a while, and I mingled my way over to the appetizer table.

The organizers announced the presentation would begin in five minutes, and that food was not allowed in the auditorium. Since I hadn't eaten dinner, I huddled near a potted plant and crammed cheese cubes into my mouth. My mouth full, someone tapped me on the shoulder. V.'s boyfriend had come back into the hallway to tell me they'd saved a seat for me since I was attending alone.

I thanked him and joined the pair. The ceremony began. One of the first presenters spoke of her inspiration for becoming involved with the association--her sister-in-law, who was battling Non Hodgkin Lymphoma. I'd been trying to hold back the tears all evening and gave up. V., sitting next to me, reached over and gripped my hand. She was crying too. To her, the story wasn't about "someone else's" life.
The story concluded with the sister-in-law achieving remission. I could feel V's relief as she loosened her grip but didn't let go. For the next ten minutes, we held hands.

V is one of many friends whom I've made over the past year. With each one, I've researched his or her disease and treatment course. I feel vested in their recoveries in a way that couldn't have been possible before my diagnosis. Just yesterday, another friend of mine received what will have been a life-saving second opinion from an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I am ecstatic for her.

According to Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Facts 2012, the overall five-year survival rate for Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML) is 23.6%. Non Hodgkin Lymphoma is almost triple that. Those Facts aren't good enough. They should be higher. I believe they will become higher. This evening I take my last four of 120 ATRA pills for this round.  The five-year survival rate for Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia (APL) is 85-98% (depending upon the research source), largely due to ATRA and Arsenic Trioxide.

The below chart shows the timeline for my disease. For anyone whose life isn't dependent on these advancements, it's a lot of mumbo jumbo. The take-away: in 1957, APL was deemed the most malignant form of acute leukemia. Today, there's a cure.
Source: The Royal Society, 2012, Treatment of acute promyelocytic leukaemia with all-trans retinoic acid and arsenic trioxide: a paradigm of synergistic molecular targeting therapy 

As unpleasant as it may be, I'll get through each of these remaining six rounds of ATRA. For the rest of my life, I will believe that cures for other cancers (and ways to prevent them) exist. They simply need to be found, and I'll do whatever I can to support that objective.