When Claire Pallen was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia in 1987, it was like receiving a death sentence. Living in the Lower Mainland at the time, Pallen was in the hospital to have treatment with a bunion problem on her foot, only to learn the while cell count in her blood was elevated—and she knew what that meant. Her grandmother had been diagnosed with leukemia and her sister had endured Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“It was all pretty devastating at the time,” recalled Pallen, who now lives in Oyama. “Here I was with two young daughters, ages five and three, and I had been told I had a form of leukemia with a 15 per cent survival rate.
“It forces you to face the reality of thinking that you may die.”
Immediate efforts were started to find a donor match for Pallen to carry out a bone marrow transplant, and testing within her family led to her cancer surviving sister.
“Initially my doctors didn’t want to test my sister because of her medical history. She was living in Australia at the time and when her doctors there said she had been cancer free for many years, it was decided to test her bone marrow and she turned out to be almost an exact match.”
The transplant worked and both Pallen and her sister are alive today, but she remembers the trauma she went through during that ordeal. There was the pressure it placed on her husband to look after the kids and be supportive to her during her 75-day stay in hospital, and the strain it placed on her family, in particular her father. Pallen says the physical stress she endured was personified by the excruciating pain of undergoing bone marrow biopsy procedures, where a large needle was injected into her hip bone to extract bone marrow and parts of the bone.
“That process wasn’t terribly long but it’s something I hope I don’t have to experience again,” she noted.
But she said the psychological and emotional toll caused by her leukemia is something that took her three to four years to find peace with.
“The treatments they do today aren’t quite as invasive as what I went through but I was lucky I had a very supportive husband.”
Pallen also cited the support available now through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada, the largest voluntary health agency dedicated to blood cancer in Canada, with offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax.
Elaine Webb, manager of patient education and support for the society’s Vancouver office, said statistics surrounding blood cancer can be uplifting or demoralizing, but the society tends to focus on the upbeat side.
“It’s not that we are trying to be pollyanna about this but if we can offer patients some glimmer of hope it is something positive for a patient with blood cancer diagnosis to focus on,” said Webb.
Currently there are 138,000 people across Canada in blood cancer remission, while someone is diagnosed with one of 137 sub-types of blood cancer every 23 minutes.
Of the 22,300 who were diagnosed with blood cancer in 2016, about one-third didn’t make it.
“But two-thirds do survive so we tend to focus on that,” Webb added, noting that like most cancers, early detection is a key weapon in enabling someone diagnosed with blood cancer to survive.
Research carries on but finding a cure is elusive because there is not a singular cause.
“There are so many reasons why blood cancer occurs but those same reasons don’t provide the same result to everyone.
“Some people glide through life, people who are smokers, drink too much beer, live near a hydro tower or are over-exposed to gasoline such as boat owners, and then there are risk factors associated with gender and family history,” she said.
“But they live a long life and die happy. Others with any of those same characteristics are gone at age 45.”
Early detection can come from feeling a lump on your body you hadn’t noticed before, you start to bruise more easily, or you cut yourself and it bleeds longer than what you would consider normal.
Webb says the society has an extensive volunteer mentor system in place to match newly diagnosed blood cancer patients with someone who has experienced what they are about to go through.
“Rather than leaving people to troll around the Internet on their own looking for answers, our First Connection program has a core group of 55 to 60 volunteers who are not there to give advice, but are there to listen about the concerns and fears that come with a blood cancer diagnosis and provide a little bit of information from what they experienced,” Webb said.
“Typically they might talk on the phone with someone once or twice. It’s not meant to be a lifelong relationship but rather someone who is there for you at a time when you need it most.”
Pallen is a big believer in the patient support program. As a long-time LLSC volunteer, she has staffed information booths at public events and has been active in the Light The Night Walk event, which was started in Vancouver with a walk around the Seawall a Stanley Park to celebrate blood cancer survivors. A similar event is planned for next year in Kelowna.
Today, Pallen is a cancer survivor some 30 years after her original diagnosis. She and her husband have retired to Oyama in Lake Country, are about to celebrate their 40th anniversary and are enjoying the recent birth of their first grandchild.
She says the disease has left as a more empathetic person and taught her to stay positive and live your life to the fullest every day.
“I feel blessed and thankful to have been able to see my kids grow up and now in their 30s. The grandchild has just been a great bonus,” she said.