Betsy Lucas felt tired. Of course she did—she and her husband, Brian, had 10-month-old Molly and 3-year-old Julia at home.
One morning in May 2005, Lucas woke up to find a rash on her leg. She went to her doctor’s office to have it checked out, thinking it was an allergic reaction or a bug bite. But when the test results came back, the expression on the doctor’s face told Lucas it was something much more serious.
Within four days, her diagnosis was confirmed: chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML, in the “blast crisis,” a late stage of the disease when cancer cells are quickly multiplying.
“Fear was the first reaction,” says Lucas, who was 34 years old at the time. “I had my whole life ahead of me.”
That’s because the University of Minnesota’s blood and marrow transplant (BMT) program is one of the largest and most accomplished in the world. Beginning with the world’s first successful BMT in 1968, the University has performed blood and marrow transplants on more than 3,700 patients.
Lucas felt that a BMT was her only treatment option. Without treatment, doctors told her and her family, she’d have three months to live.
“If I wanted to be around to see my children grow up, I needed a bone marrow transplant,” she says.
In the best hands
So that summer, Lucas started on an oral chemotherapy drug to get her cancer under control. Soon an unrelated bone marrow donor match was identified, and three months after her diagnosis, Lucas was admitted to the hospital for the intense chemotherapy and radiation that would prepare her body for the transplant.
With her husband at her side and her mother taking care of their children at home, Lucas spent six weeks in the hospital for her BMT. Then after five weeks at home, she had to be readmitted to the hospital for another seven weeks with acute graft-versus-host disease, a fairly common but serious complication of BMTs.
It was an extremely frightening time for the entire family. But they were comforted knowing that Lucas was in the best hands at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, which just happened to be across town from their Minneapolis home.
“There’s no other place I would have wanted to be,” Lucas says.
And besides knowing that she was in the care of experts, Lucas sensed that her doctors and nurses truly cared about her well-being. “Everyone at that clinic is amazing in my mind,” she says. “They’re just like angels to me.”
Back to normal
For the first two years after her transplant, Lucas was still quite fatigued and wondered whether her life would ever be normal again. Would she gain back her physical strength? Would she be able to go back to work? Would she function the way she did before the transplant?
Simple things became major milestones in Lucas’s life.
“The biggest, most important thing for me to do once I felt strong enough was to take my kids to school—to meet the teachers and other parents, and to see [the girls] with their friends,” she says. “I wanted to be a mother to them again.”
Lucas celebrated five cancer-free years since her transplant in August 2010. And life is good. She is back at work and loves playing with her daughters between their tennis and music lessons—and taking them to school.
“There was a long period of time when I just never imagined that my life today would be a reality,” she says. “I’m so grateful. I feel so fortunate.”
Lucas knows that she has benefited from groundbreaking research discoveries made at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, over the past several decades. Today at the Masonic Cancer Center, Miller, Lucas’s former doctor, and his colleagues continue to make strides toward finding cures, better treatments, and ways to prevent cancer altogether.
“I don’t think I would be here today if it hadn’t been for the research that was done 10 years ago, and that’s not that long ago,” Lucas says. “I just think of the possibilities that are out there for people in the next five, 10, 20 years. What they’re doing at the University of Minnesota is truly remarkable.”