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As a physician assistant for a busy oncology practice in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Heather Walters works with cancer patients every day. However, at the age of 29, she never imagined hearing the diagnosis of acute lymphocytic leukemia for herself. But that's exactly what happened in July of 2008.
An avid runner who typically ran 3 to 5 miles every day, Heather started noticing an uncharacteristic shortness of breath running up hill. She also felt unusually tired at the end of the day. Then she developed swollen lymph nodes in her neck and under her arms. "I thought it was mono [mononucleosis]," recalled this energetic young woman. Blood work came back the next day, showing Heather was anemic, with low platelets and very high white blood cell count. The next day, a doctor in the practice where she worked performed a bone marrow biopsy, which revealed that Heather had acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL.
"You never think that it [cancer] can happen to you."
"I was in shock," admitted Heather. "When you work with cancer patients every day, you never think that it can happen to you."
Heather made an appointment at Fox Chase Cancer Center with Robert Emmons, MD, FACP, medical director of the Bone Marrow Transplant Program. Dr. Emmons recommended that she start chemotherapy immediately, and told Heather she would need a stem cell transplant, a course of treatment that would involve her taking a year off from work.
Heather was committed to beating ALL and moving on with her life.
It was a daunting prospect, but with the help of her husband Mark, much loved family and close friends, Heather was committed to beating ALL and moving on with her life.
After several months of high dose chemotherapy, and thanks to her sister Stephanie's donation of stem cells, Heather had her transplant - "which felt like a glorified blood transfusion."
Heather felt as if she would never feel well again.
Although her recovery was slow, Heather felt as if she would never feel well again. Due to the side effects, Heather lost 25 pounds. Her family stayed close. So did her Fox Chase team.
"Dr. Emmons and his physician assistant Lisa were wonderful."
"Dr. Emmons and his physician assistant Lisa were wonderful," said Heather. "Everyone, from the front desk girls who greet you by name every time you come in, to the tech who draws your labs and the nurses that treat you like family, really made an impression on me. Dr. Emmons encouraged me the whole time and told me that I would get back to normal, even if it was a slow process."
Throughout her journey, Heather blogged about her experience to communicate with friends and family. She found blogging about her condition therapeutic on many levels. "While I was in the hospital, I put out an update every day of what was going on and how I was feeling. I continued to post from home, updating everyone on my health status." She added pictures, giving family and friends in other parts of the country the chance to share in her journey.
As Dr. Emmons promised, eventually, Heather started feeling better. A year after her transplant, a bone marrow biopsy showed no evidence of leukemia. She's put on weight and regained her energy level and positive attitude.
"I am feeling great, back to 'normal' as far as appetite, activity, and especially attitude."
"Today I am jogging again, hiking with my husband Mark and my dogs, and mountain biking. I feel great, like my old self," said Heather, who returned to work full-time in July 2010. 2011 brought major milestones for Heather, who completed a marathon in June, where she placed in the top ten women, and celebrated 3 years of being in remission in December.
ALL was a journey Heather hadn't expected, and one she never wants to take again. But for Heather, life after cancer is sweeter than ever. "Life is good again!"
Read Heather's blog in StrongTogether.