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.
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.
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.”