In “Detour,” leukemia patient chronicles her journey back to health
December 8, 2015 | by City of Hope
Jane Wirth felt as if a Mac truck had hit her broadside. Stunned, she sat in her oncologist’s office in Northern California as the reality sank in. Those four words were a blow to her soul, yet they marked a turning point in her cancer journey.
It led her to City of Hope, where a clinical trial offered an innovative therapy to leukemia patients whose remission has relapsed. It also led her to write a book, “Detour,” about her illness, the treatment she received at City of Hope and her subsequent remission.
Jane, who offers career training for early childhood educators, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) in 2007. The disease occurs when the bone marrow produces too many immature lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that fights infection. Instead of developing into mature white blood cells that carry out specific immune system functions, the young cells, known as lymphoblasts, grow and divide at an uncontrolled rate and crowd out healthy cells.
After undergoing at least six different kinds of chemotherapy, Jane recovered and enjoyed a cancer-free life for five years. But in 2012, she relapsed and once again faced the rigors of cancer treatment. Two more rounds of chemotherapy failed to stop the disease.
Fortunately, Jane’s doctor knew about a clinical trial at City of Hope, in which a new drug therapy was being tested for ALL patients whose cancer had returned. Directed by Anthony Stein, M.D., a clinical professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, the clinical trial explored the efficacy and safety of Blincyto (generic name blinatumomab), an immunotherapy drug.
“It utilizes a patient’s own immune system, directing their immune cells to attack and get rid of leukemia cells,” Stein said. Blincyto, which engage the body’s T cells, a type of white blood cell, to destroy leukemia cells, is the first such drug to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Jane recalls her first moments on the City of Hope campus.
She completed two 28-day courses of the groundbreaking therapy that would change her life. After the second round of treatment, Jane was taking daily walks, meditating and eating well.
“The treatment was so easy because, unlike chemo, these drugs didn’t have to kill anything,” Jane said. “The worst thing that I felt on the treatment was homesickness.”
At the end of the clinical trial Jane was in remission and returned to the Northern California hospital for a bone marrow transplant. Within two week of the transplant, tests showed a rise in platelets, a sign her bone marrow was once again functioning normally.
The staff at the hospital in Northern California where Jane underwent the transplant was stunned at her rapid progress.
“You’re a superstar,” one of the nurses said. “You have platelets already.”
Today, Jane enjoys life at her Reno, Nevada, home. She works part time, visits the gym and does yoga, goes camping and hiking with her husband, David, and spends time with her Morgan horse, who just turned 24. She speaks freely about her cancer journey, and is happy when people tell her that her book helped them.
“I wrote the book to give others inspiration and peace of mind,” Jane said. Ten percent of the proceeds from her memoir go to the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center at City of Hope.
“If this drug continues to succeed, it’ll help so many others like me,” she said.
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