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‘All that she gave me’: Confluence woman survives leukemia with help from a friend

September 23, 2018

Colleen Hostetler had episodic fevers for months. She got cold and shook for six minutes and had to curl up under six blankets. Doctor after doctor gave her the incorrect diagnosis. It wasn’t until she collapsed at a chiropractor’s office that she was sent to a hospital and discovered her condition. She had acute myeloid leukemia.

“I hit my knees. It was devastating,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I didn’t know a whole lot about it. I didn’t know if I would live or die.”

The disease starts in the bone marrow, which is the soft inner part of certain bones, where new blood cells are made. Most often it quickly moves into the blood, as well. It can sometimes spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, brain and spinal cord, and testicles, according to the American Cancer Society.

Most often, it develops from cells that would turn into white blood cells, but sometimes the disease develops in other types of blood-forming cells. Hostetler, of Confluence, has been in remission for three years, thanks to both a miraculous medical recovery and the use of innovative transplant technologies.

“They told me this one always comes back. Naturally I’m scared,” Hostetler said. “But I’m trying to have faith that it’s not going to come back. God saved me the first time for a reason. We’re trying to live life. We try not to think about it. My doctor told me to live every day like it’s your last. That’s what we’re doing. We’re grateful to everyone.”

Hostetler was cured with a stem cell transplant that restored her bone marrow and immune system. Before the transplant, a person undergoes a conditioning regimen, which involves intensive treatment to destroy as many leukemia cells as possible. They may receive high doses of chemotherapy and, in some cases, radiation therapy, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

Once this preparative regimen is complete, they are ready to undergo the transplant. Much like a blood transfusion, the patient receives the stem cells intravenously. The procedure takes about an hour. After entering the bloodstream, the stem cells travel to the bone marrow and start to make new blood cells in a process known as engraftment.

Hostetler was treated at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh. She went through two rounds of chemotherapy. She lost her hair along with 55 pounds during the process. Her husband, Ron Hostetler, watched in anguish.

“It was heartbreaking. When you’ve been married for that long, you become true soul mates,” he said. “You know each other’s ups and downs. Knowing that could come to an end was disconcerting. I knew she could pull through but also knew that she might not.”

Through the National Marrow Donor Program, clinicians at West Penn Hospital found a match for Colleen. The program has managed the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world. Seventy percent of patients who need a transplant do not have a fully matched donor in their family. They depend on the service supporters to find a match.

After the transplant, Hostetler remained in the hospital for 64 days. As a result of her treatment, she developed terrible blisters in her mouth, which caused her not to eat or drink for days. They had to give her bagged food through a port. Dr. Santhosh Sadashiv, the clinical assistant professor at the Division of Hematology and Cellular Therapy at Allegheny Health Network, was the doctor responsible for her care.

“She finally came through this. One thing that stood out with her was her resilience,” Sadashiv said. “Not many people can go through those complications. They give up and say they’re done through it. But she persevered. She had a great outlook. Her husband was supportive and so was her family. So she came victorious through this grinding process. She’s in remission for three years and she’s done remarkably well.”

Sadly her sister Jane Johnson, who had supported Colleen throughout her treatment, was diagnosed with lung cancer and died during the ordeal. The two were close, and it made the recovery that much more difficult.

Hostetler met her donor, Jessica Hardy, this past Sunday at a picnic held by West Penn Hospital, which paid for the donor’s family to visit. Hostetler is thankful that her medical treatment was available to save her life.

“I felt unbelievable,” she said. “It is so nice to know that there are people who are willing to give of themselves, time and part of her body. I have her whole immune system now. My body accepted all that she gave me.”

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