‘I Thought I Had This Thing Beat’: A Story of Relapse and Recovery

January 17, 2018 | by Jennifer Mattson

Mollie and Her Donor | City of Hope Mollie Warner, left, with her sister (and bone marrow donor)

A routine blood test before an eye exam changed everything for Mollie Warner.

In the summer of 2015, the Wells Fargo risk manager and mother of two was living a happy, active life in Rancho Cucamonga, California, with her husband. She worked out regularly at the gym, lifted weights and was even taking a kickboxing class when she started feeling fatigued.

Warner chalked it up to it being a “hot summer.” After all, it was July in Southern California and she had a lot on her plate. She was a senior manager with a team of employees spread across the country, a full-time mother and a wife.

By August she couldn't catch her breath during routine workouts at the gym. Her trainer couldn't figure it out. After returning from a business trip, “things started to escalate” and she developed “random fevers and lower back pain.” Warner guessed she had a urinary tract or kidney infection.

Her local doctor said tests showed severe anemia and prescribed an iron supplement and antibiotics for a possible infection.

At the same time, Warner had a nonrelated eye procedure which required she undergo a routine blood test so she could get anesthesia. In September 2015, her eye doctor called to say they took a look at the blood results and had to cancel her eye surgery. All her blood counts were alarmingly below normal.

“You need to get yourself to the emergency room,” he said.

 

Diagnosis

The next day, Warner drove herself to the ER where she was told her white blood cells were so low she had to wear a protective mask. Soon after, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and admitted to her local hospital.

Warner was stunned. According to the American Cancer Society, AML is uncommon before age 45 (she was 42). The average age of a patient with AML is 67 years. In 2017, there were about 21,380 new cases of — and some 10,590 deaths from — AML in the U.S.

Three weeks later, Warner was transferred to City of Hope under the care of Anthony Stein, M.D. She would need a bone marrow transplant.
 
But Warner soon learned about the challenges of finding a match. Unlike blood donors, bone marrow matches have more to do with ethnicity than blood type.

Luckily, Warner’s search for a donor ended in a perfect match with her sister, Laura.

Mollie and Dr Anthony Stein | City of Hope Mollie with Anthony Stein, M.D.

In December, Warner was infused with her sister’s stem cells. What made an impression were the nurses: “They come in all day, and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ when you’re done, because it really is that.”

What also struck Warner was how many other patients couldn’t find a match on the bone marrow registry. Especially those who were not Caucasian.

Finally, months after her initial diagnosis, Warner went home on December 30. Now just 103 pounds, she regained her strength by walking and forcing herself to eat. By mid-March 2016, she reached her 100-day milestone without relapse.

To celebrate, Warner, her husband and two kids stayed at a beach house. “I was thinking I had this thing beat.”

But soon her counts fell lower, a sign that she was relapsing.

 

Relapse

“It's one thing not knowing what to expect, its another thing to know,” explained Warner. “It's terrifying.”

In April 2016, back in chemotherapy, she met K, another City of Hope patient with AML. K was also due for a second bone marrow transplant, and crossing paths would forever change Warner's life.

The similarities between Warner’s and K’s journeys were astounding. Both had relapsed after their first transplant, both were in outpatient therapy and both had chemotherapy at the same time, each week.

K was due to enter a clinical trial involving an experimental new type of treatment. But due to a series of unanticipated events, K had to drop out, creating a slot for Warner.

In November 2016, after three weeks in the trial, Warner was seeking another donor for her second transplant. The bone marrow registry eventually found a match in the U.K., but that donor fell through.

After going through the match process a second time, Warner realized how desperately “we need people on the registry.” She organized a drive at her local church, signing some 50 people up for the registry.

“Bone marrow transplants are one of the most intense processes to go through as a patient but as a donor, it’s one of the least intense,” she said. “Donation is relatively painless, but there is a misconception that it is extremely painful.” Trying to change that perception is now Warner's mission.

In January 2017, Warner turned again to her sister Laura to be a donor for a second bone marrow transplant.

As Warner recovered, her friend K became sicker. In February, Warner returned home. Soon after, K passed away. By June, Warner hit her 100 day marker — again — but by summer she was showing signs of relapsing. After four rounds of chemotherapy, she's now once again in remission.

Today, Warner has a new sense of purpose, raising awareness about AML and bone marrow donations.

“We can allow suffering to take us down or have a purpose for it. Had I not been through this, I would know nothing about the bone marrow registry.“ 

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To sign up to become a bone marrow donor, visit City of Hope's Be the Match page. Find out more about our acute myeloid leukemia program and research.

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