Over the past months I've received a lot of e-mail. It varies from "I'm praying for you" to detailed advice. I haven't taken the time to reply to all of them, especially the more detailed ones which in turn require a detailed response. It's easy to get tired of explaining things and justifying to family and friends decisions we have made, to be perfectly honest, even though I know the advice and questions come out of a sincere desire to help. So, I've decided to do a "questions and answers" post to address the questions we most commonly receive.
First, I want to explain very basically what AML is. There will be approximately 12,000 new cases in the US this year. Of those, 90% will affect people over 65 years of age. 90% will die. There is debate among the leukemia community as to whether these statistics are accurate based on the fact that most AML deaths are recorded under the secondary cause of death, such as pneumonia or influenza. A family member of the deceased needs to stay on top of the doctor in order to have the cause of death recorded as AML.
AML is a result of acquired genetic damage to the DNA of developing cells in the bone marrow. In my case, they were unable to find any genetic changes, and I haven't been exposed to things like benzene or radiation and never smoked, so I was told it just happened one day like being hit by lightning. (Studies now show that it only takes the carcinogens in the smoke of one cigarette to cause irreversible genetic damage, so I certainly don't rule out second hand smoke as a possibility. Unfortunately none of us have managed to avoid cigarette smoke all of our lives.) We feel there is still a genetic marker somewhere, but it has yet to be discovered. One of the chromosomal changes, dubbed Philadelphia after its place of discovery, was just found in the past ten years. AML is also not a result of a compromised immune system or a failure to think positively.
The effects of AML are an uncontrolled, exaggerated growth of cells called leukemic blasts which fail to function as normal blood cells. My oncologist refers to them as juvenile delinquents. The other major effect is a blockage of the normal cells which in turn causes me to be anemic, have low platelets and become neutropenic. Lots of people have implied that my struggle with low counts and constant need for blood and platelets is because we've chosen to do chemo, not realizing that my disease alone does all the damage of chemo. The difference with chemo is that something is attacking the blasts along with all the other cells.*
The overwhelming advice we are given is to eat only organic or raw foods. I recognize that with most diseases, this is probably a good approach to use along with treatment. And certainly eating healthy is something I've focused on, but an organic or raw food diet poses significant risk to AML patients because our immune system is compromised from the disease. It's impossible to wash all the bacteria from raw foods (such as E. Coli or more common strains), and while most people can handle it, AML patients cannot. It's not just the doctors being "anti natural" -- it's a fact that I have to deal with everyday. I avoid uncooked foods just like I avoid public places. Unfortunately it goes with the diagnosis. Through study we have also learned that I need to avoid an iron-rich diet which has me avoiding meat along with a lot of green vegetables and some fruits. It is our understanding that the leukemic blasts "feed" on iron and I honestly feel my disease is progressing at a slower rate with these diet changes, though only time will tell for sure.
The one aspect of the disease that I hate the most is the compromised immune system. I have missed anniversary parties, weddings and funerals this past year, always weighing the benefit against the risk of death. At this time it is paramount that I stay healthy. AML patients die of secondary diseases as a result of low blood counts. If I stay healthy, I stay alive, and I have time to fight.
I have become increasingly aware of the danger of giving medical advice to others. (As opposed to making someone aware of a possible treatment so they can research how it may apply to their illness.) Even within AML there are subtypes and chromosomal involvement or deletion which cause treatment to vary greatly. What is good for one patient may kill another, and certainly leukemia often gets lumped in with other types of cancer and recommendations are based upon a friend or family member who once had breast or prostrate cancer, the two most common types. It's frustrating, and I often find myself repeating "they're not the same!!" Unfortunately cancer is a very wide category, and each case is unique. To that end, I do not want anything I have written or any treatment options I have mentioned on this blog to ever be construed as medical advice for another patient. My advice has been and continues to be -- learn about your disease. Study it. Learn to communicate with your doctors and get multiple opinions. Try to have a patient advocate. I don't have one professionally, though I feel my husband functions as such, as have other family members when needed. We've consulted with multiple hospitals, cancer patient advocates, oncologists, hematologists, immunologists, naturopaths and a psychiatrist. All have helped to give us information on different aspects of this disease, and I find the knowledge helps so much in our own personal fight.
Again, thank you for the love and care that each e-mail expresses, and I hope this has helped to clarify AML and the treatment options we are pursuing. We have been very grateful for everyone who has taken the time to make us aware of possible treatments, and it is only my intention to "get a reply" to everyone without taking a lot of time away from my family right now.
*I obtained most of this information from the following website: