A chance for the Hutchinson Center to say thanks to its former patients
The Hutchinson Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance host special reunion
By Colleen Steelquist, Hutchinson Center science editor
Karen Hartvig-Nielsen spent several hours this morning in her lush flower and vegetable garden, weeding, soaking up the peaceful quiet and enjoying the company of her dogs, Biji and Jasmine. And she was filled with gratitude over being here at all.
In 2000, the then 46-year-old was diagnosed with advanced multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. She was given two years to live at most. Refusing to accept that diagnosis, she sought treatment at the Hutchinson Center. She sought hope.
“For the first time since my diagnosis, I was able to take a deep breath and relax, knowing I was at the right place at the right time with the right people with the right skills,” Karen said. “I didn’t have to second-guess my doctors because there was a whole team approach.
“I was able to fall back into the arms of the Hutch and just allow myself to be sick and put my energy into healing.”
After receiving a transplant of her own stem cells, followed by another transplant of her sister’s donated cells, Karen was cured. She’s still cancer-free, 10 years later.
The Birch Bay, Wash., resident is excited to travel to Seattle this weekend, joining more than 300 transplant patients and 500 of their family members as they return to the Center to participate in a very special 5 + Year Transplant Survivor Reunion.
The reunion is the fifth of its kind in our history. Named Legacy for Life, the gathering of former patients reminds us of the extraordinary contributions to cancer research made by patients such as Karen. And as Center leaders have said, the reunion champions what we are all about, and it gives us an opportunity to take stock of how far we have come and the work that remains ahead.
The men, women and children who visit this weekend, folks like Karen, are profoundly grateful to be alive. Feel free to read their stories and gaze at the wonderful photos filled with smiles and milestones.
For transplant patients, the reunion also offers an opportunity to reconnect with staff and fellow patients.
One of Karen’s biggest reasons for attending is the chance to show other multiple myeloma survivors what a decade past cancer looks like, to offer them confidence to plan their tomorrows.
She hopes to see Dr. Bill Bensinger, the multiple myeloma specialist who helped treat her. She ran into him a couple of years after her transplants and he cried with joy at seeing her still alive.
“I would love to show him that this is what all his stress, work, sacrifice and brain cell activity has been for,” Karen said. “Look at this—I’m 10 years out and I’m happy as a clam!
“It has been an unbelievable journey. I’ve seen my youngest son marry a wonderful woman, and I’ve enjoyed watching my grandchildren, siblings and parents grow older along with me. What a miracle of life I’ve been given.”
The Center’s researchers pioneered bone marrow and stem cell transplantation to treat blood cancers, and like our predecessors, we continue to believe that science and hope move along hand in hand.
At the Center, we have done transplants for more than 13,000 patients since 1969, and through our treatment arm, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, we now perform about 500 adult and pediatric transplants annually. More than 60,000 transplants will be done worldwide this year, with an expected milestone of 1 million transplants by 2012.
When people find out where I work, they sometimes comment, “I couldn’t work at a cancer center. It must be so depressing!” But honestly, it’s not. Yes, cancer is a horrible disease that claims too many people too soon. However, this is a place imbued with optimism and tenacity, invested in discovery, ever hopeful that we can do better. Our thanks to every patient who’s helped along the way.