October 15, 2019
Several members of The University of Kansas Cancer Center blood cancer care team bring unique perspective to their roles. They know what it’s like to be a patient because each was once a patient here herself. Their experiences shaped their futures. After triumphing over cancer, these women chose careers that support others through their own unique cancer journeys. They are part of the reason the cancer center’s blood and marrow transplant (BMT) and cellular therapeutics program achieves outcomes second to none.
These patients-turned-teammates come to work each day with compassion, dedication and empathy. These are their stories.
Laura Hollar knows all too well what it’s like when complications arise from cancer treatment. Diagnosed with acute leukemia in December 2012 at age 23, she received several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Next came an umbilical cord stem cell transplant from a nonfamily donor on April 30, 2013.
“The transplant was a high-risk choice due to potential side effects but, if I survived, I would have a negligible chance of relapse,” Laura says.
The cancer didn’t return, but Laura’s journey continued. She developed graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) and returned to the hospital 3 days after being discharged. She remained there for 3 more months. In August 2013, Laura received an
anti-thymocyte globulin (ATG) antibody that resolved the GVHD.
However, high doses of steroids, chemotherapy and radiation had taken their toll. Avascular necrosis – death of bone tissue – developed in several of her joints. As a result, Laura had a left hip replacement in April 2014 and a right knee replacement later that year in November.
“Some days I lived minute to minute with cancer or fighting the side effects of treatment,” she says. “It was agony for quite a long time. But my care experience was amazing. I was able to stay close to home and receive world-class treatment.”
Prior to her diagnosis, Laura wanted to work in medicine but wasn’t sure which area. After her treatment, she knew exactly what her calling would be.
Now 6 years posttransplant, Laura is a patient mentor and works as a clinical research coordinator in hematology/oncology for the cancer center. She works alongside the very physicians who treated her.
“I never tell my patients that I understand their journeys,” she says. “Everyone’s cancer experience is different. I had issues other people don’t have. And other people have issues that I didn’t have. There is no comparison of suffering.”
Instead, Laura simply listens.
“I do tell them it’s OK not to feel strong. It’s important to let the person grieve the loss of their hair, for example, or feel sad about being away from family,” she says. “I want them to know you can feel all of those emotions and still not give up.”
Personal motivation pushes Laura to work long hours, but she knows she’s not alone. “Everyone who works here, whether or not they’ve had cancer, knows this is urgent and critical work,” she says. “The cancer center is one of the best in the nation. We have an incredible program here.”
In 2010, doctors told Emily she had acute promyelocytic leukemia. The disease can quickly develop life-threatening blood-clotting or bleeding problems if not treated. She was urgently transferred to the cancer center.
The life-threatening diagnosis forced Emily, then 20, to drop out of school at the University of Kansas and immediately begin treatment. For the next 6 months, she received chemotherapy, a round of arsenic trioxide and other preventive therapies to keep the leukemia from spreading to her central nervous system.
During her treatment, Emily turned 21, a birthday she remembers fondly.
“The staff decorated my treatment room and brought me individually wrapped, store-bought cupcakes. We toasted with sparkling juice,” Emily says. “They made me feel really special.”
Emily returned to school and graduated, but with an altered career path.
“I knew I wanted to help patients through their cancer journeys,” she says. “I started applying for jobs at the cancer center.”
Emily landed her first job as registrar in the BMT program. Today, at 29, Emily is a clinical research coordinator on the clinical trials team. She also mentors BMT patients and volunteers with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“I would not be where I am today if I had not been diagnosed with leukemia and experienced cancer,” Emily says. “I now feel like I am doing what I was destined to do.” Many patients benefit from Emily’s strength and commitment, but so does another very special person, a beautiful son born since Emily battled cancer.
Caroline deeply understands the emotional side of cancer. She was a single mom when she was diagnosed at a local hospital with potentially fatal chronic myeloid leukemia at age 23.
“I was terrified out of my mind,” she says.
She was given a choice of treatments: a high-risk stem cell transplant from a nonfamily donor or a drug called Gleevec. Then brand new, the drug was recommended by transplant specialist Joseph McGuirk, DO, who told Caroline he would choose that treatment for his own daughter.
“I wanted to live long enough to see my 2½-year-old little boy graduate from kindergarten,” Caroline says. “I felt like he would be old enough to remember me then.”
She chose the Gleevec. A year later, her specific cancer markers were undetectable, and they have never returned.
When Dr. McGuirk joined the cancer center’s BMT program in 2008, Caroline followed him there for her continued care.
“Without a doubt, I was never going to leave that man,” she says.
After she received the all-clear to go back to work, Caroline left her career in corporate sales to become a nurse.
“I never regret my diagnosis because it made me who I am,” she says.
Today, she is part of the blood and marrow transplant and cellular therapy leadership team and is instrumental in structuring its CAR T-cell therapy program. That little prekindergartner is a teenager, and Caroline has toddler twins with her husband of more than 5 years.
“Taking care of my patients and this clinic the way that I do is the best way I know how to say thank you,” she says.
An avid runner all her life, Joanne Wilson began experiencing shortness of breath and enlarged lymph nodes shortly after her 21st birthday. She visited her doctor and was diagnosed with stage 4 follicular lymphoma. She received 7 rounds of R-CHOP chemotherapy followed by 2 years of maintenance Rituxan.
Jo received most of her care at The University of Kansas Cancer Center. That care, and those who provided it, made an impression on Jo that led to her career as a nurse practitioner.
“The nurses were kind and intelligent and encouraged me to learn as much as I could about my own diagnosis and treatment,” she says. “This curiosity began as a welcome distraction during treatment and became a subject of fascination and amazement. Halfway through chemo, I applied to nursing school.”
Today, Jo focuses on inpatient BMT care. She brings a personal perspective to her work, though she doesn’t claim that having been a patient makes her a better provider.
“Most of the people I work with have never received a cancer diagnosis or chemo, yet they are outstanding, compassionate providers whose ultimate goal is the same as mine – to provide the best care possible to give our patients the best chance for survival,” she says.
Jo views her diagnosis as a reminder to be grateful for the providers and researchers whose work saved her life, and whose continued efforts will improve treatment and outcomes for future patients.
“It is reassuring to know that I work with a group of people who are relentlessly researching to find improved treatments for these horrible diseases,” she says. “For this I am truly grateful.”
Now 15 years in grateful remission, Jo strives to give back. In addition to helping her patients fight their battles daily, Jo turns her love of running into support for cancer research. She has participated in and raised funds for several Team In Training events for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Her next event is a marathon in Anchorage, Alaska. Her husband and 3 children will be there to cheer her on.
“I run for my patients,” she says. “I run to celebrate 15 years in remission. And, to be honest, I run because I still can."
Meghan was a pre-med student at Boston College, home on summer break in Kansas City, when she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Her mother began calling friends and family, asking for recommendations of great hospitals.
“They asked my mom, ‘Why are you even considering hospitals farther away? Do you know about The University of Kansas Cancer Center? Why would you leave your support system and your home? You can get great care right here,’” Meghan says.
Meghan was admitted into the BMT program within 12 hours of the diagnosis. Her treatment consisted of multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant from a nonfamily donor. She received her new cells just 2 days before her 21st birthday.
“My experience was exceptional,” Meghan says. “They did a good job involving me in my treatment. I felt like a person, not a patient. That was big for me.”
Meghan finished her undergraduate degree and landed a job as a data and research specialist for the BMT program. She held the job for a year before being accepted into the University of Kansas School of Medicine.
Now finished with her 4th year of medical school, she has been accepted into a residency program in Chicago. She says her experience as a leukemia patient will make her an even better healthcare provider.
“I understand what it’s like to be sidelined from life for weeks and months at a time,” Meghan says. “Having been through it myself, I have so much empathy for the patient.”