AML survivor: My road to recovery

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Erika_Evans_.jpgEvery day, acute myeloid leukemia (AML) survivor Erika Evans runs four miles around Lake Austin. Just two years ago she thought she'd never run again. Worse, she thought she might not live.

Erika's AML symptoms

On that same running trail in 2011, Erika felt her first AML symptom: a relentless cough. She assumed it was allergies.


She tried cold medications, but the cough grew worse, until Erika could barely walk short distances without coughing. She decided to see a doctor.


A series of blood test showed she had chronic leukemia. Erika didn't waste a moment. She told her doctor, "Well, at least we can treat it."


Doctors concluded Erika had acute lymphocyte leukemia (ALL) and began chemotherapy. But by the time the treatment was complete, the size of her cancer had doubled. Erika had been misdiagnosed.

AML treatment: Cord blood transplant

Erika was determined to become well again.


"I just had to fight for my kids," she says. "One minute they had this healthy mom. The next minute, I was on my death bed."


Erika had lost her father as a teenager, and she didn't want her children to suffer as she had.


So Erika came to MD Anderson. With the correct leukemia diagnosis, she began her treatment: chemotherapy and radiation, which was to be followed by a stem cell transplant. After chemo and radiation, Erika and her doctors began looking for a donor, but couldn't find a match.


"It felt like yet another door was shut in my face," she says.


Erika's doctor, Elizabeth Shpall, M.D., decided to use umbilical cord blood for the transplant. However umbilical cords provide a lower dose of white blood cells and platelets, increasing the risk of infection.


At the time, Shpall and her colleagues were conducting a clinical trial to see if, by growing those cells in a lab, they could increase the number of white blood cells and make cord blood transplants safer for patients. Erika participated in the study, the results of which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.


"I accepted the idea since I had no other chance of survival without it, but in the back of my mind, I was worried," Erika says. "Dr. Shpall calmed my nerves, and I trusted her 100%."


Cord blood transplant recovery and GVHD

Three weeks after her cord blood transplant, Erika developed graft versus host disease (GVHD). The new cells didn't recognize their new environment and attacked her body.


She grew new fingernails and developed a rash on her skin and sores on her mouth and tongue. She couldn't swallow and spent 23 days on a feeding tube. And, she lost so much weight that her skin hung loose where muscles used to be.  


Erika often looked out the window, wishing she could trade places with someone -- anyone -- outside.


"I looked like I was 90 years old," she says. "I went through every symptom you could have, and I wondered if I would ever feel good again."


Returning home after AML treatment

One hundred days after she arrived at MD Anderson, Erika was released. She was nearly bedridden, so her kids cared for her through the summer.


When they went back to school in September, Erika became her own caregiver. While being her own caregiver was difficult, Erika was grateful in the end.


"It was really good for me," she says. "I wanted to be healthy again, and this made me work toward it."


Eventually, she started exercising a little, too. She began with one sit-up, one squat. Over time, Erika was able to do more. Eventually, she felt like her old self again.


Now Erika dedicates her time to helping other patients. She often returns to MD Anderson, not for her own appointments, but to visit others. She brings them bags orange plastic bracelets that they can share with others as a sign of awareness and support, and more importantly, a message of hope.

She wants them to know, "I've been where you are, and you are going to get to have a life again. It just takes time."

AML is one of the cancers MD Anderson is focusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. Learn more about our AML/MDS Moon Shot.


My son was diagnosed with AML flt3 on Good Friday, 2012. He spent his entire 19 year in Cook Children's Hospital in Ft Worth. August 21, 2012 he received a cord blood transplant. August 22, 2012 he died from problems. Fortunately we had awesome nurses and doctors that were able to bring him back to me.
I am a breast cancer survivor.
Cancer is such a scary word. Have faith and be strong.

So happy to have found Erika and her incredible story!! And even more surprised that Dr. Shpall is her doctor as she saved my life 14 years ago! Thank you Dr. Shpall for continuing to do the incredible work that you are doing. I will never forget you standing at the foot of my bed, always knowing that you were doing the best for me through my auto transplant for stage 3 breast cancer. 8 years later, I would be diagnosed with AML and have my life saved once again, this time by a cord blood transplant. If I ever get to Houston, I will stop and give you both a hug!

All the best,
Deb Martell

My daughter also passed away March of this year from AML. She did not have the flt3 mutation, so options were limited for her. She received her ultimate healing from our father in heaven. Although, she passed away, I find it encouraging to see a survivor involved in the mission to encourage and fight for others. Keep going, I plan to also.

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