Ronni Gordon is  a cancer survivor and long-time journalist who has written about her journey, about health and fitness, and about how she and others have prevailed in difficult situations. She brings to her writing a mix of personal experience with knowledge about the health-care system and how cancer patients can navigate it. A graduate of Vassar College with a master's degree in journalism from Boston University, she is a freelance writer who worked in daily newspapers for more than 30 years. She has been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dana FarberCancer Institute magazine, and Cancer Today magazine. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her dog, Maddie, short for Madison (Avenue) in honor of her hometown, New York, and is mother of three grown children, Ben, Joe, and Katie

Ronni Gordon

Robin Roberts Cancer Fight Aided by Good Luck

Tuesday, 21 May 2013 09:25 AM

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When Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts was hospitalized last month for an infection following a bone marrow transplant, the episode highlighted the vulnerability of blood cancer patients who have received the life-saving procedure.
 
Roberts was 52, but in transplant years, she was only 5 months old when she returned to work after her transplant last fall. This is based on the common calculation that a transplant becomes your new birthday.
 
Roberts had myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, once known as pre-leukemia because the bone marrow disease can turn into leukemia if not treated.
 
Like many survivors of a blood cancer – in my case AML, or acute myeloid leukemia– I have followed her progress closely. I wondered how she talked her doctors into allowing her to return to work just five months after the procedure.
 
I was shocked when my doctor told me that I could return to work only after a full year.
Chemotherapy basically eradicates your bone marrow and it is then filled with healthy cells. At that point, you have the immune system of a baby. You even have to get your vaccinations all over again.
Roberts was off the air for a week last month following hospitalization for an infection. It’s not only returning to work that can put your immature immune system at risk. It’s just about everything.
I still have the big white binder filled with all the “don’ts.” At first, no going anywhere without a mask and gloves. No restaurant food or unpackaged deli meats, no food cooked outside your house, no bakery products, no fresh fruit or vegetables, and more.
I craved a strawberry, a bagel, and pizza (frozen is allowed, but it’s not the same). These restrictions are gradually lifted, starting 100 days post-transplant.
“It will really set us back if you get sick,” my doctor told me. Roberts was lucky to have had just a week-long hospitalization. Not liking to do anything the easy way, I did, of course, get an infection, probably from something as seemingly innocent as pulling a weed out of the garden. I contracted apergillus, a dangerous fungal infection, probably from releasing a fungus from the dirt. Before I could get my last round of chemotherapy and my transplant, I needed lung surgery – a Video Assisted Thoracic Surgery, or VATS – to remove the fungal ball. I felt like a Mack truck had hit me.
Roberts has been lucky in other ways. If her sister had not been a match, her doctors would have sought a donor from Be the Match, formerly the National Bone Marrow Registry Program. Because they have a more complex tissue type and are not well represented on the registry, African-Americans are least likely to find a match. Only 7 percent of the approximately 10 million potential donors are African-American.
Be the Match has increasingly sought to attract more African-American donors, either through registration drives or through providing information on getting a home-testing kit. Potential donors use a tongue swab to determine their human leukocyte antigen (HLA), the genetic marker in white blood cells.
More information is available from the Be the Match website.
 

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