Myelodysplastic syndrome survivor
- Diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome in 2004 at age 50
- Treated with standard therapy near her home in Miami, Florida
- Consulted with SCCA in 2013 about bone marrow transplant to halt her disease
- Received transplant in 2014; experiencing mild graft-versus-host disease
In 2004 at age 50, Thais Murdoch was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a chronic bone marrow disease that affects blood-forming stem cells and leads to low levels of blood cells in the bloodstream. It started out as a mild disease for Thais, a physical therapist living in Miami, Florida.
She first received treatment near her home with erythropoietin (Epogen, Eprex, Procrit), a medication that stimulates bone marrow to make more red blood cells, for about three years. When that started to fail, she was treated with a similar medication, darbepoetin alfa (Aranesp), for a while. Eventually, lenalidomide (Revlimid), a new medication at the time, was approved for MDS patients. Thais took lenalidomide for about five years, but it lowers white blood cell and platelet counts and can have other side effects.
Mild stroke a turning point in treatment
Her doctors recommended transfusions to increase her blood cell count, but Thais declined. “Being in the medical field, I knew that was the last step to take with my disease,” she said. “Starting transfusions was going to cause me to have more and more transfusions.”
Then, in 2012, Thais had a mild stroke, possibly linked to lenalidomide, according to her doctors, because it increases the risk for blood clots. Her doctors started talking about a bone marrow transplant as her only remaining treatment option—and a possible cure.
“That’s when my sister started doing research,” Thais recalled. “She learned that the best place in the world for a bone marrow transplant is Fred Hutch and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA).”
Hope and a transplant for MDS at SCCA
Thais came to SCCA in October 2013 and met with Michael L. Linenberger, MD, medical director for Apheresis and Cellular Therapy at SCCA. “I recall well the good news that I was a candidate for a stem cell transplant,” Thais said. “He explained, very clearly and with diagrams, about my disease and why I needed a transplant as soon as possible. Best of all, he gave me hope!”
Thais required an allogeneic bone marrow transplant, which meant she’d need donor bone marrow cells. It turned out that her sister, Taous Sawyer, from Bellingham, Washington, was a perfect match and would donate bone marrow for Thais’ procedure.
Getting temporary housing and financial help
As a health care provider herself, Thais is familiar with medicine and hospitals. “What we have here [at SCCA] is a fairy tale. I’m amazed every time I come up,” she said.
Transplants are a long-term treatment, requiring a month of conditioning, at least a month in the hospital, and then 100 days living nearby for post-transplant recovery since patients are essentially rebuilding their immune system during this time. So before she could begin the transplant process, Thais needed a place to stay in Seattle.
“But housing is expensive,” she said, “and some people can’t afford it. At SCCA, they help you figure out ways to make it work, including the SCCA Family Assistance Fund.” She received help from this fund and has been able to stay at SCCA House during her treatment visits. Between treatments she lives with her sister in Bellingham.
“It was hard to accept help because I was so independent as a single mom,” Thais said. “But it’s important to have family and friends to help you when you have MDS.”
Thais began her transplant conditioning on March 19, 2014, and received her transplant on April 22. “I was in the hospital for three weeks, and everyone was so wonderful! All of the doctors and nurses, even the janitors, were all so nice,” Thais said.
After transplant: Graft-versus-host disease
Many who receive transplanted donor cells, even though closely matched, experience graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), in which the transplanted cells recognize the recipient’s tissues as foreign and attack them. Thais developed GVHD in her intestinal tract, with symptoms ranging from constipation to loose stools to indigestion. She was treated with a zero-fiber diet and prednisone and is doing better now.
A few months after transplant, Thais had a bone marrow biopsy and learned, disappointingly, that her disease was still there. Bart Lee Scott, MD, medical oncologist at SCCA, started her on 21-day cycle of treatment with azacitidine (Mylosar, Vidaza), a chemotherapy drug that interferes with the growth and spread of myelodysplastic cells in the body.
‘They never give up’
“It’s a new treatment that Dr. Scott is excited about,” Thais said. It put her MDS in remission in September 2014. She’ll continue the treatment through March 2015, and after three clean bone marrow scans (one every three months) she’ll be able to stop. “Thank God and the BEST doctors in the world.”
Though she looks forward to her treatment being over, Thais is apprehensive about leaving the safety of SCCA. “The doctors and nurses talk to you in a way that you can understand. You’re part of the care. They never give up, and they always have something to offer. I am afraid to leave all that,” she said. “They teach you how to stay healthy here.”