When Maria Avelar began cancer treatments at JPS Health Network in 2003, her prognosis looked good.
Her case of mediastinal lymphoma typically has better than a 90 percent likelihood of being cured without future complications. But her oncologist was alarmed when Maria became one of the rare patients who saw the disease come back – and quickly. Hers re-emerged in less than a year and Maria was in for the fight of her life.
“We were originally pretty excited when we learned what we were dealing with because we knew it was something we ought to be able to cure,” oncologist Latha Neerukonda said. “It seemed like the prognosis was very good. But her case turned out to be a more complicated one.”
Avelar had an autologous transplant to deal with the reoccurrence. That’s a procedure where stem cells are collected from the patient and infused back into their body and it seemed to work well, helping the patient back onto the road to wellness. After five more years of health, however, it was noticed during a check-up that Maria’s blood cell counts were dwindling. A very curable initial cancer had turned into something much worse. Doctors determined Avelar had Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a sort of cancer that sometimes develops in patients during their battle with other forms of the disease.
Exposure to chemotherapy and radiation are risk factors for Myelodysplastic Syndrome in which blood cells in the bone marrow do not mature and become healthy, fully-functional cells. It can develop into acute leukemia. Neerukonda said the best chance to beat the new disease was a bone marrow transplant.
Fortunately, with 11 sisters and brothers, Avelar had a large pool of potential donors. She was relieved when she learned that four siblings were a generic match. It was decided her sister would be the donor and the procedure – followed by a long recovery period – took place.
JPS does not perform the transplant surgery, so doctors and other team members had to help Avelar coordinate getting it done at another hospital before she was brought back to continue her treatment.
Avelar, through an interpreter, said that as she neared a decade of fighting cancer, she was beginning to become weary of the battle.
“It was very difficult, but somehow I was able to do it,” Avelar said through a translator. “After the transplant, I felt like I was dying. I prayed for God to either take me or leave me.”
While it was a tough fight against her cancer, it soon became clear the transplant was working. By 2015, Avelar said things started to get easier for her and she didn’t feel like she was sick all the time anymore.
“I call her my miracle patient,” Neerukonda said. “She went through so much and had an unusual case. But she’s made it through. When it comes to lymphoma, if you’ve been cancer free for 10 years, you’re considered to be cured and it will be 15 years for her in August.”
While it was tough, Avelar said the fight was worth it and she’s grateful to Neerukonda every day for saving her life.
“I worried for a long time that it would come back again,” Avelar said through an interpreter. “But, as time went by, I began to feel as if I had passed that line. I’m so happy, my family is so happy that I am still here.”