2020 has been a difficult year for most—but for Beth VanWassenhove, her difficult year didn’t begin with the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, she began 2020 with a fight for her life against an aggressive blood cancer.
Beth never expected her life to turn upside down as quickly as it did. The way she tells it, she had a perfectly happy life, living in the idyllic Cincinnati neighborhood of Pleasant Ridge with her eight-year-old son while working as a professor at a local university. In fact, she had just accomplished a major career milestone and defended her dissertation at Northern Kentucky University in January when she began to feel ill.
“It came absolutely out of the blue,” she recalls. “I had just defended my dissertation with my NKU sisterhood in January and it was flu season. I had the flu the week before, and was still feeling incredibly winded and exhausted. I went to the doctor on a Thursday morning when I wasn't teaching because I was still feeling pretty bad.”
Her physician ordered blood work, and sent her home with an inhaler and cough medicine to counteract her symptoms. But just a few hours later, she received a call from her doctor’s office, first asking her to come back in for a few more tests.
“But as the scheduler received more information from the doctor, it was clear that I was really sick. I was told to go to the ER immediately,” Beth says.
She ended up at Good Samaritan Hospital later that day, hooked up to a heart monitor and undergoing a battery of tests. “Around 11:30 p.m., I was admitted and taken up to a room on the heart floor,” she recalls. “I was told that I would be having a bone marrow biopsy in the morning and couldn't eat or drink anything after midnight.”
Beth was no stranger to bone marrow biopsies, but she still didn’t fully grasp the severity of what was happening to her.
“In the back of my mind, I knew what a bone marrow biopsy was. My dad had multiple myeloma for five years before passing away in 2017, but it didn't totally click in my mind.”
“The next morning, I met my hematologist at Good Samaritan who told me I had cancer and the bone marrow biopsy would confirm the type of cancer I had,” she remembers. “The initial bone marrow biopsy revealed that my marrow was 100% packed with leukemia cells.”
Beth was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a type of cancer that begins in the bone marrow. In patients with AML, the myeloid stem cells behave abnormally and do not transform into mature blood cells, or they transform into irregular blood cells that do not function normally. Those abnormal cells build up in the bone marrow and bloodstream, causing fatigue, anemia, shortness of breath, and excessive bleeding.
AML is a disease that moves quickly, so treatment had to begin immediately. What began as a doctor’s visit for lingering flu symptoms ended up being a month-long stay in the hospital, fighting for her life.
“I walked in to Good Sam on February 13 and did not leave the hospital until March 14,” Beth says. “Because AML is relentless, I had to start treatment immediately. I was moved to the cancer floor and met some of the kindest nurses I have ever encountered.”
But before she could begin her chemotherapy, Beth got a little help from local blood donors.
“My platelet count was extremely low, so before I could receive chemo, I received my first transfusion of blood and platelets,” she says. “Receiving a transfusion literally felt like someone plugged me in and recharged my battery. Within hours of the transfusion, I could feel the difference in my body.”
The treatment for AML is grueling—chemotherapy can kill cancer cells, but can also have a devastating impact on the rest of the body and destroy other cells in the blood and vital organs. “During my treatment, I received two different types of chemotherapy—one was high powered for three days, then the other was 24/7 for a whole week,” Beth recalls. “During the course of my treatment thus far, I have received at least 100 units of blood and platelets.”
It was during this time, receiving dozens of transfusions that renewed her blood cells and gave her the energy to keep fighting, that Beth understood the importance of blood donation.
“Blood donation is critical, and absolutely lifesaving. I am here today because of the generosity of donors,” she says.
One good thing that came out of her diagnosis, she notes, was that her community came out to replenish the blood supply in her honor. “My son's school community organized a Hoxworth blood drive in my honor, ‘Blood for Beth,’ at Pleasant Ridge Montessori in March, then organized another one with Hoxworth over the summer held at Losantiville Country Club.”
Beth was finally released from Good Sam in mid-March, after more than four weeks of taxing treatment. “After I was released from Good Sam, I transferred my care up to The James Cancer Center through Ohio State University. I received three more rounds of chemo, completing treatment in June.”
Her recovery wasn’t easy, and was complicated by a number of setbacks, including a global pandemic.
“During that whole time, I wasn't able to see my son much because my immune system was so fragile, so we went months without physically seeing each other,” she says. “Adding COVID-19 into the mix added another layer of complexity. My body also developed an antibody to general platelets and I now have to have special platelets if I ever need a transfusion.”
Beth’s battle still isn’t over, and she knows she has a long road ahead of her. Her goal, she says, “is to be part of the 25% of people to make it to the five-year survival mark.” But for now, her blood counts are looking good—and she knows she has an army of supporters behind her.
“Cancer isn't something you ‘beat’—it is something that you live with every day, and your whole world is turned inside out when you receive a diagnosis,” she says. “Blood cancers are scary. They happen to anyone at any age. But thanks to research, medicine, and amazing doctors, nurses, PCAs, and care teams, along with blood centers and blood donors, there is hope.”
Fighting against blood cancer has brought a new sense of clarity to Beth’s life—and she isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I just celebrated my birthday last month, and we also celebrated my son's birthday. Each day has new meaning to me now. Life literally changes in an instant. I would never have realized how quickly priorities become crystal clear. I have been carried and supported by so many people along the way—family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers.”
Strangers like blood donors, who were critical to her survival. Beth says that she still struggles to find the words that accurately convey her gratitude to the individuals in the community who make the time to donate for a stranger.
“If I could say one thing to donors, it would be thank you,” she says. “There isn't a word that I have found to express my deep, sincere appreciation for this seemingly ‘simple’ gift. Your donation allows people to celebrate birthdays, to be there for their families, to live their lives. I also know that donation isn't easy for folks—I had friends try to donate, pass out, or not have enough iron to donate. I know needles are scary. But it truly is lifesaving and life-giving.”
“Obviously, after this diagnosis, I understand how important and self-less blood donors are,” she finishes. “I am here today because of the generosity of donors.”