B-Cell Follicular non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Survivor
- Diagnosed with lymphoma after a screening mammogram
- Received no treatment initially until symptoms appeared
- Treatment hoped to put disease in remission
- Receives maintenance chemotherapy to date
It was during Deborah Przekop’s yearly screening mammogram in February 2010 when the radiologist noticed that lymph nodes under Deb’s arms were enlarged. “I went every year (for mammograms) on the dot, so the year previous to that in 2009, nothing. In 2010, they were enlarged and she didn’t even let me leave the office,” Deb says.
Deb had an ultrasound and a biopsy right there in the office, and the next day her doctor called. Deb had cancer, B-cell follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to be exact. Deb was 69 years old.
“I was numb,” she says. “It’s almost like the birth of Christ… It's BC and AD: Before Cancer and After Diagnosis. And then you’re dealing with a new normal.”
Cancer changes everything, Deb says. “But everything stays the same, too. You still have the same problems you had yesterday, but now you have to worry about healthcare problems and insurance. It’s overwhelming to begin with.”
Deb watched her mother go through cancer. “And she did it very badly,” she says. “It was 18 months from her diagnosis to her death and she cried every day. I knew I wasn’t going to do that.”
Finding Seattle Cancer Care Alliance
After her diagnosis, Deb’s physician referred her to a local oncologist, but Deb didn’t feel any connection to him, and decided to seek treatment elsewhere. That’s when she came to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA).
“I had a neighbor who was an oncologist at SCCA and he was amazingly caring,” Deb says. “I thought that was where I wanted to be and I looked online to see where they were ranked in the country and they were ranked very high.”
Deb’s new oncologist was Lihua Elizabeth Budde, MD, PhD. “I wasn’t afraid to ask her the questions: How long am I going to live? How am I going to die? What is the end going to be like? I wanted to have all the bad news and then deal with it. I was impressed. Dr. Budde is an expert in this disease. There wasn’t any placating at all. And she’s just amazing.”
“I’ve gone to seminars and I have found out that there are 47 different kinds of lymphoma,” Deb says. “There are fast-growing and slow-growing lymphomas. Mine is a very slow-growing cancer. I was in stage IV cancer and still in a wait and see.”
Treatment didn’t start out as much in the beginning. Deb never had any symptoms, until one day a tumor in her groin area began to grow and that’s when Dr. Budde said it was time for chemotherapy.
“I had no symptoms. I still have no symptoms. I have night sweats. That’s it. No pain; never a minute’s pain,” Deb says.
Deb went through six cycles of R-CVP, a commonly used regimen for follicular lymphoma of Rituximab, Cyclophosphamide, Vincristine Sulfate, and Prednisone, and then they waited for three months while the chemotherapy continued to work. Hoping for remission, a CT scan said they’d achieved partial remission. “The largest tumor decreased in size by 75 percent and others were gone or inactive,” Deb says.
“Deb is very knowledgeable and realistic about her disease,” says Dr. Budde. “When I told her that it was time to start chemotherapy treatment, she took it well and just simply said, ‘Let’s do it.’ At the same time, she is also a caring and delightful person to interact with. Everyone in the clinic enjoys working with her.”
Dr. Budde gave Deb a choice to wait and see until it comes back , or go on a maintenance program of two drugs once every eight weeks.
“I think it’s better to do something than nothing,” Deb says. And she had her first Rituximab maintenance treatment in spring 2012. She receives this treatment every two months for two years. The goal is to prolong the time to next treatment.
Deb realized she was not going to be able to handle her “new normal” as a cancer patient alone, or even with her family. “I ended up getting into two support groups, Gilda’s Club and a knitting group, and seeing a psychiatrist (Jesse R. Fann, MD, MPH at SCCA). Between the time of diagnosis and all this happening, it was about six months and a very difficult time,” she says.
Over the next six months, Deb’s emotions ran the gamut from confusion, depression, to fear. “It’s not the first time I’ve faced death in my life,” she says, “and it’s not even the second. So I think I took it a little easier and I worried more about my family. The phone calls were the hardest thing to do.”
Network for help
One of the first questions Deb remembers asking Dr. Fann, her psychiatrist, was, “why are you doing this?”
“This has to be the most depressing job, besides being an oncologist, there is,” she says. But Dr. Fann assured her it was anything but… “I see so much courage, it’s very inspiring,” Dr. Fann says. “And it keeps me doing what I do.”
Deb wanted to be one of those people. “I wanted to be courageous,” she says. “You make choices in life. If you’re depressed, you can make a choice to be happy, and make the choice to be happy once you have cancer. Give your oncologist the sickness.”
Dr. Fann prescribed medication to help Deb. “A great medication, and he monitored my dosage. I had zero side effects. The only side effect I have from chemotherapy is that I’m tired. That’s better than pain.”
Getting through it
Deb says it’s important to get help. “You can’t have too much help. You have friends, family, your doctors, but when you’re in a group, you all have the same card. It’s my medicine. It helps you accept what’s happening to you and going to happen to you.”
For now, Deb has the “chemo brain” that people can get from treatment, but overall, she says, “I’m a survivor, even though I know it’s going to get me in the end, I’m surviving today.
“This is hard to believe, but I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. Having cancer even changes your past. It changes the way you see your past and how that affects you. My life is very happy. I do what I want when I want. The simplest things make me happy.”
Deb says that at SCCA, she doesn’t feel pampered. “I feel cared for–all of me… My cancer, my emotional health. You can’t be sad at SCCA. The nurses are happy, they make me happy. They’re willing to talk to you about anything and take their time. When I see my oncologist, I decide when the visit is over. She never gets up to leave. I’ve never had that experience with a doctor. Ever.”