It was the worst holiday season of her life.
Kathy Jewett had been extremely fatigued for several months. She had trouble just waking up, much less going to her job at the Internal Revenue Service.
Her primary care physician noted her lymphocyte concentration was high, possibly signaling a viral infection or, in some rare cases, leukemia. When the doctor asked her to come back to the office after a CAT scan, Jewett was more than a little worried--she had found several new lumps on both sides of her neck and even though she didn't know it yet, her spleen was enlarged.
Right away, she was referred to hematologist-oncologist Samer Renno, M.D., at Alegent Creighton Health Mercy Hospital in Council Bluffs. "They took 13 tubes of blood," she remembered. "And they told me they'd let me know what they found before Christmas."
The Friday before Christmas she found out she had some type of lymphoma. Three days after Christmas her doctor told her she had non-Hodgkin mantle cell lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. It's the seventh most common cancer in females in the United States and it had spread to her bone marrow. "It was pretty much throughout my system," she said. Her sister had died from breast cancer so Jewett didn't want to waste any time. "I asked, ‘Okay, what are we going to do now? What are we going to do next? What do we have to do to get on top of this?'"
Jewett learned she was going to have stem cell transplants, similar to "Good Morning, America's" co-host Robin Roberts. "They wanted to wipe out my immune system and start over and let it regenerate." Jewett had an autologous stem cell transplant,* where stem cells were collected from her own bone marrow. Then she was admitted to Alegent Creighton Health Immanuel Medical Center to start high-dose chemotherapy. Healthy stem cells were transplanted back into her bloodstream a week later, in a process similar to a blood transfusion. "Most of the time I was okay," she said. "It was good knowing we were building back up."
Immanuel recently received internationally-recognized accreditation by the Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy (FACT) for its autologous stem cell transplant program. The accreditation means Immanuel met the most rigorous standards in every aspect of stem cell therapy. FACT conducted an on-site evaluation in January 2012."FACT accreditation validates that we strive to provide exceptional care for our patients with blood cancers," said Joseph Verdirame, M.D., medical director of the stem cell transplant program at Immanuel Medical Center."Our multidisciplinary stem cell transplant team provides high-quality, state-of-the-art treatment while focusing on individualized care plans designed to treat the whole person."
Jewett said individualized care was critical to her outcome: "Weekly doctors' conferences where my case was discussed made me more comfortable. They knew what they were doing. It was all very individualized."
She also praised the cancer team's sensitivity. "They're very supportive of who you are and what your needs are," she said."They let me take control of what I felt I could handle. They told me enough to get me through but I didn't want too much information. If I'd looked at the whole thing at once, I don't know how I would have done this."
She was discharged after 12 days in the hospital and continued to see her physician frequently. In May of 2013 she retired from the IRS and spends a lot of time reading and babysitting for family. She just returned from a trip to Utah and is headed to Texas and New Hampshire soon.
She'll continue maintenance treatments through October 2014 but doesn't mind. "Today I'm still doing okay. I'm still positive. I feel great. I'm cancer-free!"
*Autologous stem cell transplants are used to treat certain types of cancer including but not limited to multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Despite risks of infection and the challenge of the high-dose chemo, outcomes for stem cell transplants have improved dramatically and they often can cure a patient's disease .Many health insurance plans and managed care organizations use FACT accreditation as a factor for designating "Centers of Excellence."