By Kadesha Thomas
Photo by David Christopher
Left to right: Kelsey Yette, 16, has not been diagnosed, but she has a genetic mutation that could lead to leukemia. Lucy Godley, MD, PhD, (second from left) has already treated her mother, Shannon Wilson, and her grandmother, Mica Witt.
Lucy Godley, MD, PhD,
slid her fingers over the blotchy, red rash covering her patient’s legs.
Thirty-eight-year-old Shannon Wilson’s skin had an “electrifying itch”
over the past three days. She’d had chemotherapy and a stem cell
transplant to treat a rare cancer six weeks before this appointment. One
of her antibiotics was possibly causing the reaction.
the examination table with a baseball cap covering the wisps of hair
chemotherapy left behind, Wilson sighed with irritation. She gestured
for her mother, Mica Witt, 57, to pass her the grocery bag full of
rattling pill bottles that she has to carry around every day.
knows exactly what her daughter is going through. She even struggles
with thoughts that this is her fault. Eight years ago, Witt herself was
the one complaining to Godley, associate professor of medicine, about
the aftershocks of cancer treatment. Their cancer came from a RUNX1
genetic mutation, located on chromosome 21, that leads to leukemia.
They are one of 32 known families in the world found to have the
Witt was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in
June 2002, after her primary physician near her home in Mahomet,
Illinois, found that her platelet levels had dropped to 40,000 per
microliter. Normal range starts at 150,000. The physician said she only
had a 10 percent chance to live.
“I thought ‘God, you handle this one,” Witt recalled. “From that moment on, I knew I wasn’t going to die.”
physician recommended that Witt come to the Medical Center, where
Godley was confident she could be treated. “It wasn’t like, ‘You have
AML; you’re older; let’s turn out the lights,’” Witt said. “They said,
‘We can do this, or that or this.’”
Witt had an autologous stem
cell transplant in February 2003. With this type of transplant, Witt was
first treated with chemotherapy. Then her own bone marrow, also treated
with chemotherapy, was infused back into her body. Still, her platelet
levels would not rise above 100,000. Just as her hair was starting to
grow back, her cancer relapsed as a myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).
suspecting a genetic link, Godley performed an allogenic stem cell
transplant in December 2003, using bone marrow donated from Witt’s older
brother. Six months later she was celebrating at the NASCAR race in
Michigan and back to work part time.
In March 2009, the family
was dealing with cancer again. Witt's daughter, Shannon Wilson, had been
diagnosed with the same rare cancer. Godley told them, "You're either
living on a toxic waste dump, or you have a genetic mutation."
tested the whole family for the gene. By October 2009, the results were
in. Witt, Wilson and her two teenage children packed into the office of
Kenan Onel, MD, PhD, director of the Medical Center’s Pediatric
Familial Cancer Clinic. Only one other person had the genetic mutation —
it was Wilson’s 16-year-old daughter, Kelsey.
Wilson’s only sibling, Ashley, was able to donate bone marrow for
Wilson’s stem cell transplant in April 2010. The treatment took just as
much of an emotional toll as the diagnosis. Wilson credits Godley and
staff nurse Lisandra Ayala, RN, OCN, for being “the best” at coaxing her
“You have to put yourself in their position,” said
Ayala, who recently won the Morgan Award for Excellence in Oncology
Nursing during Nursing Week 2010. “I just let her know, ‘This is just
the hard part; you’ll get through it.”
Wilson and her mother have
Godley’s personal cell phone number just in case anything happens
between follow-up appointments. Even while on vacation, Wilson said
Godley answers every call to coach Wilson through side effects like the
red, itching body rash.
Despite such side effects, Godley had
good news — the blood work for Witt and Wilson showed healthy platelet
levels and no sign of cancer. “And Kelsey,” Godley said smiling, “you’re
totally fine, too.”