For runner Michele Sturt, this journey began with a lymph node

May 22, 2014 | by City of Hope

Every patient story is unique and, so in its own way, inspiring. Here, Michele Sturt – a runner, a nurse and a mother of four – shares her story of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and of her ultimate treatment at City of Hope.

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I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2007 when I was 54 years old. I had been a runner since I was in my early twenties and used running as my gauge to my personal wellness status. How fast, how much effort, how many aches and pains, how many personal bests ... these have been my general health parameters for many years. In other words, aside from various weekend warrior accidents, I had been quite healthy until I was told I had non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

patient Michele Sturt Michele Sturt of Petoskey, Michigan, has long used running as her gauge of personal health. Before she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, her running signaled to her that something wasn't quite right. Now, almost a year post-bone marrow transplant at City of Hope, she's running once more. Here, she runs near a son's home in Santa Barbara. Photo courtesy of Michele Sturt.

I had noticed that I was really having a hard time keeping up with my running friends. I was working too hard and not getting anywhere fast. I also had a single small inguinal lymph node that was new. It didn’t bother me other than I knew it wasn’t normal. Besides being a runner, I am also a nurse practitioner in internal medicine.

First, I waited the obligatory four to six weeks to see if it would go away. I also complained to one of the doctors I work with, and she felt I should have the node biopsied and be done with it. The general surgeon gave me the option of waiting longer before doing anything, but at that point I wanted the node out and evaluated. I was tired but had no other symptoms.

My diagnosis was non-Hodgkin lymphoma, specifically indolent follicular B cell, a slow-growing, not curable but treatable form of lymphoma.

So, now what? I didn’t feel like I had cancer. I had lived an unusually clean and healthy life, although crazy busy and active, and I was the last person you would expect to have cancer, unless you knew what I knew – it’s a dice throw and I just crapped out. With only one oncologist available in my hometown of Petoskey, Michigan, at that time, I needed to figure out where to go for answers. I was seen at three cancer centers over a three-year period (none of them City of Hope), and I received three different recommendations for treatment. Full chemotherapy and radiation, only radiation, or wait and watch before treatment. I chose to do the radiation to my pelvis for 21 days at a center close to my home. I received care there for two years, but I felt like a stranger every time I had an appointment. Eventually, I established my care at a cancer center in New York City, where my son was living at the time.

My lymphoma began to progress quickly in 2012 and I began chemotherapy at home under the direction of my physician at the New York center. After five months of chemo, I developed pulmonary embolisms and could not breathe. It was the first time that I actually felt ill.

My lymphoma transformed into a more aggressive large B cell type and a large tumor mass was pressing on my right kidney, causing problems. I was hospitalized for two weeks and then began a different regimen of chemotherapy. Talk of a bone marrow transplant came next. I was getting prepared to do this in New York when my sister in-law suggested that I check out City of Hope.

She had mentioned it several times over the years because she lived in La Caňada, California, and knew the reputation of City of Hope. With her help, I was so, so fortunate to be able to get an appointment with Stephen J. Forman, M.D., the Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation.

After seeing him and City of Hope, I was quite sure that this was the place I wanted to entrust my care and my life. I have been in many hospitals in my life and nowhere have I seen a hospital motto that has as holistic and important a guiding principle as City of Hope’s: "There is no profit in curing the body if, in the process, we destroy the soul."

I came to City of Hope as an inpatient in May 2013 for a last chemotherapy treatment and to prepare for a matched unrelated donor BMT, or allogeneic BMT. I decided to take part in a clinical trial and began doing the testing protocol in June of 2013. My BMT, my chance to live a longer life, took place on July 31, 2013.

Today, I am almost a year post-transplant. I feel great, and am almost off of transplant medications. I’m finally able to be involved in the planning of my oldest son’s wedding in July. My husband and four sons are breathing a sigh of relief and now believe me when I say I am not done “raising” them yet, and I will be around a long time to drive them crazy. My mother, sister and brother are all sleeping better at night, and my loving and supportive friends have stopped worrying about me.

I started walking around the Rose Bowl a week after I left the hospital on Aug. 18, 2013. It took me an hour to walk a mile and a half. I am now running again, and while I am slower than molasses, I am easily running six miles at home or, when I'm in Pasadena, twice around the Rose Bowl. I am back at work part-time in internal medicine. I have been doing yoga, pilates and Zumba classes to gain strength the past four months – and loving every minute of the chance to get stronger.

To this day, I've never had a second of doubt that City of Hope was where I needed to be. The expertise and care that I received was beyond my expectations as a nurse, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, and now, a cancer survivor. To say that I am incredibly grateful, just scratches the surface of how I feel. It is almost impossible to put into words the feelings and emotions I have for such an amazing experience at City of Hope.

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Learn more about lymphoma treatment at City of Hope.

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