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Pull those bootstraps up and move forward

How hope, determination and an experimental drug helped one survivor through a bone marrow transplant

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Lisa and Rick, surrounded by friends at their wedding

Lisa Gumbleton has always been about celebrating the little things.

When her blood cell count was high enough to go through with her bone marrow transplant, Lisa celebrated.

“We were all laughing like it was any other kind of day,” she says.

When a debilitating stomach virus left her unable to eat for two weeks while undergoing cancer treatment, she posted a flurry of pictures of beautiful food on Pinterest.

“I just sat and looked at food,” says Lisa. “You just never let go of hope.”

Lisa was diagnosed with leukemia on Oct. 16, 2012, the day of her 48th birthday.

A kindergarten teacher for 23 years with endless energy reserves, Lisa began feeling exhausted all the time. Years earlier, she had her thyroid removed and a hysterectomy, and she thought this could be causing her fatigue. After a battery of tests, all negative, she noticed a lump on her throat.

Her family doctor ordered more tests (“a shotgun approach”) and an MRI. The next series of calls went by in a blur. On her birthday, Lisa sat in her oncologist’s office with her friend, Cynthia, hearing the news that she had an aggressive form of leukemia.

“I was told I needed to have a bone marrow transplant. Otherwise, it was just a death sentence,” Lisa says. “I told everybody, ‘You can be sad but you cannot be angry.’ I have a strong faith. I knew from the start I was picking myself up from my bootstraps and I am kicking this thing. I knew I was going to beat this.”

The treatment started the following Monday. The plan was for chemotherapy and watching her blood levels, followed by a bone marrow transplant at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

It turned out to be more complicated.

Doctors also discovered a mutated gene, FLT3, that kept Lisa from going into remission. The cancer returned aggressively while they were still searching for a bone marrow donor.

She continued on chemotherapy and doctors monitored her blood levels as the search for a marrow donor continued. The first donor fell through.

While waiting for another, the cancer worsened.

Everyone started praying and soon enough, things lined up. Lisa’s blood cell count was good and a donor came through.

After months of chemotherapy, she received a transplant on Feb. 12.

Lisa says she felt great following the transplant. But a month later, on March 18, Dr. John Magenau, a bone marrow transplant specialist at U-M, broke tough news. The transplant hadn’t taken and she had two months to live. Magenau suggested an experimental drug he felt would extend her life some, so she started on a clinical trial.

It gave her more than they thought.

In the meantime, her best friend, Rick, proposed marriage in the examination room within minutes of the diagnosis.

On April 20, she and Rick married at a ceremony at their close friends’ house, followed by an Irish pub-themed reception the following day at the Flint Elks Lodge.

More than 500 people attended the fairytale wedding and reception complete with a faux cobblestone walkway, a castle-like décor and bagpipers.

The couple wore cowboy boots to go with Lisa’s “pulling myself up by my bootstraps” mantra.

“It was a celebration of life,” she says of the wedding. “It was the most beautiful wedding in the world. No one talked about cancer.”

On her 49th birthday, a year after her diagnosis, Lisa had a bone biopsy. The tests came back negative, including the news that the FLT3 was gone. She was cancer free.

Now, normalcy is returning.

She and her husband recently took a trip – not to Ireland, but to Greenville, S.C., where Rick was doing a 50-mile bike ride in the Hincapie Gran Fondo, which raises money for local charities.

“Oct. 21 was our first trip, a full year after starting my first chemo treatment. It was just another beginning. Looking at the mountains and the colors was amazing,” Lisa says.

What does she want others to know about her experience?

“You just don’t ever let go of hope. Even in the worst moments, close your eyes, relax and just know it’s possible.

“I looked at everything as a blessing,” she says. “I have a lot of faith, and hundreds of prayers are going out to me daily.  But it doesn’t have to be faith, if that’s not for you. Hold on to anything or anyone you get your strength from so you can look forward.  For me, seeing my students again was another big goal as we neared the end of the 2013 school year. Now I am focused on getting back with my students in my classroom.”

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A woman holds a sign that says survivorWhat does cancer look like? In this series of stories we explore the Face of Cancer – the patients, survivors, caregivers and health care providers who are redefining what cancer looks like. These stories celebrate the ways in which people continue to live their life, find purpose and stay true to themselves throughout cancer treatment.

 

 

Cancer center-informal-vertical-sigThe University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan for cancer patient care. Seventeen multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.

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