Brenda Partee thought she had put cancer in the rearview mirror.
She survived cervical cancer in 2011 and, just four years later, underwent breast surgery to remove a precancerous tumor.
She and her husband, Dan, resolved to get fit in early 2018. They started walking more and hit the gym. Dan booked a physical.
Brenda, who worked as a front desk manager at a hotel, decided to get one, too. Her employer offered a $25 gift card as an incentive, so why not?
On a slow day at the hotel, she received the unexpected test results: leukemia.
“I was in shock,” Brenda, 55, of Lowell, Michigan, said.
Her manager sent her home. Dan made calls to physicians.
Brenda soon met with oncologist Latha Sree Polavaram, MD, of the Cancer and Hematology Centers of Western Michigan.
The diagnosis: chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells in the bone marrow.
Most patients with this diagnosis can initially be monitored closely without any treatment. But in some patients, it can have aggressive features and cause symptoms that can be managed with chemotherapy or targeted therapy.
Brenda would require treatment within three months.
That May, she experienced other acute pain, never suspecting it could be related to the chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
She went to the emergency room. Blood tests revealed her white blood cell counts had skyrocketed. Blood clots caused the pain, which also moved to her arm.
She spent the next five weeks at Corewell Health Butterworth Hospital.
After trying several options, Dr. Polavaram found a medication that worked. Brenda returned home and went back to work.
“I was doing fine for a year and half,” she said.
Then, monthly blood tests revealed doubling white blood cell counts.
Dr. Polavaram referred her to Sami Brake, MD, program director and section chief of adult blood and marrow transplant with Corewell Health, to discuss a stem cell transplant as a curative treatment option.
‘OK, let’s do it’
Brenda and Dan share a love of travel, and they often finish each other’s sentences. Not so the day they met with Dr. Brake.
The doctor explained what the procedure would entail, the complexity, the risks and the lengthy recovery, as well as the curative intent of the treatment.
Dan immediately felt the treatment could save Brenda’s life.
Before they even reached the elevator, however, Brenda reacted differently.
“Nope. I’m good,” she remembers saying. “I’m not doing it.”
That was late 2019.
In the months that followed, Brenda talked it over with Dan, and with her sister, Cheryl. They spoke with Brenda’s team of physicians. After a second meeting with Dr. Brake, Brenda agreed to move forward.
“I totally trusted him,” Brenda said. “I said, ‘Ok, let’s do it.’”
Most patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia respond well to conventional medication.
“The unique situation was the fact that she had an aggressive version of this leukemia, with multiple episodes of progressions and relapses,” Dr. Brake said. “It was refractory by definition, and resistant to therapy.”
Allogeneic stem cell transplant is not offered to all patients with this type of leukemia—only to a highly select group of patients, where the benefits outweigh the risks, Dr. Brake said.
He understood Brenda’s initial reluctance.
“It’s very difficult for patients to hear, ‘This is what you’re going to need and this is how your life is going to change for the next year,'” Dr. Brake said. “It’s a very drastic measure and a very complex process, but when it is done right, the reward is immense.”
In early 2020, the transplant team began searching for a donor. By fall, they found a match.
‘Queen for the day’
Before the transplant, a round of chemotherapy targeted the cancer cells and prepared her body to receive the donor’s cells.
Transplant day arrived in January 2021.
Brenda wore a tiara she had picked up on a trip to Disney World.
“I was going to be queen for the day,” she said.
Dr. Brake visited her every day she spent in the hospital, including weekends. And that meant a lot to Brenda.
For about 100 days post-transplant, Brenda left home only to visit the Corewell Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, two or three times a week. She needed a caregiver 24/7.
Dan, who works Fridays through Sundays, stayed with her most days. Brenda’s sister and a close friend helped on weekends.
“I was constantly tired,” Brenda said.
“It was a struggle to get her to walk from the bedroom to the living room,” Dan said.
She found joy in the thoughtful gestures and gifts from friends, including a bird feeder and a bird book. She looked forward to spotting new species from her four-season porch.
Those little things—watching the birds, viewing her niece, nephew and grandchildren’s school concerts online, and the fact the rest of the world had gone remote—helped Brenda cope with the isolation.
Physically, the first year was a rollercoaster.
She battled fevers, aches and pains. She developed a head-to-toe itch, which Dan helped her treat by applying three lotions each day.
But the transplant team had prepared them.
“Everything that happened to her after the transplant was by the book,” Dan said. “She came out of it really well—and is still coming out of it well.”
“She is back to her baseline,” Dr. Brake said. “She travels. She enjoys holidays.”
With no evidence of rejection of the new cells, Brenda’s prognosis is very good, he said.
Brenda credits Dr. Brake and the team with preparing her and providing support.
“They told me what I should do, what I shouldn’t do, what I can do and what I can’t do,” she said. “And I listened.”
After her diagnosis, Dan and Brenda cruised the Amalfi Coast. They have also been to Japan, Costa Rica, Albania, Greece and Italy, and they’re planning more international travel soon.
Brenda enjoys gardening, although she gave all her plants away to friends and relatives during isolation.
She’s delighted that one of the plants a friend returned to her, a palm tree, has shown signs of life since she placed it out on her sunny deck.
Brenda tends to the garden four to five hours a day.
She and Dan started walking again, and she’s up to 3.5 miles on the stationary bike he gave her.
“I feel better now than I have in five years,” Brenda said. “Even making plans is new. Before it would be like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to feel.’”
Her plans include having her grandkids sleep over, day trips to the beach, visiting the zoo and spending a weekend at Mackinac Island. Brenda and Dan’s 2023 itinerary includes trips to Arizona and France.
“Life is good and I am very blessed to be here and be enjoying it,” Brenda said a few days before a celebration of her “second re-birthday” in January.
She credits her recovery to her doctors, and to the love and support she receives from Dan and her friends and her family.
And she has no regrets about saying “yes” to the treatment.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Brenda said. “It was a hard journey. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be, by far.
“If you trust your doctors and listen to them, it makes a world of difference.”
I have had CML for almost 12 years, had Dr, Polavarum when we lived in Michigan and Lemon-Holton is a great cancer facility! Thanks be to God for healing!
Very glad to hear that you have been treated and are well obviously Mary.