Cure Rate for Leukemia Increases : Medical Advances Provide Victims New Lease on Life

Times Staff Writer

As the '80s began, Lynda Appling was living the life of her dreams: She was an airline flight attendant whose work took her to some of the nation's most glamorous destinations; she owned a home in Garden Grove, skied weekly in the winter and led an active social life. "I was independent and free," Appling, who is single, recalls wistfully.

Then, in the winter of 1982, Appling's world collapsed. Chronically fatigued and itching so much she couldn't wear her flight attendant uniform, Appling was forced to give up her job. Her complexion took on a grayish-green tone, and she lost so much weight that her family and friends thought she was wasting away.

"You've got some kind of cancer," a doctor informed Appling following months of physical exams and laboratory tests. Subsequent tests showed that Appling was in the last stages of Hodgkin's disease, a potentially fatal cancer related to leukemia that attacks lymphatic tissues.

Like Death Sentence

To Appling, then 35, this diagnosis sounded like a death sentence. As recently as a decade ago, her chances for survival would have been slim, cancer specialists say. But now, thanks to advances in treatment resulting from research largely funded by the Leukemia Society of America, patients such as Appling are receiving a new lease on life.

"Today, many leukemia patients are cured, whereas 10 years ago there were (few survivors)," says Joe Petritsch, president of the Tri-County chapter of the Leukemia Society of America. From its Tustin headquarters, the chapter serves Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties and the state of Nevada.

Yet, Petritsch cautions, "For every patient cured, there is still one that dies. We are closing in on a killer, but our commitment must persevere until leukemia has been completely eradicated."

Dr. Kenneth B. McCredie, the national Leukemia Society's vice president for medical and scientific affairs, said: "Until recently, every real-life leukemia story ended sadly. Leukemia was a disease without hope, untreatable and incurable.

"The only question that mattered was whether the patient had the acute type, which generally killed most patients within a few months, or the chronic form, which could let the patient linger a year or two," McCredie said in a telephone interview from Houston. He is a professor of medicine at the University of Texas System Cancer Center at the M.D. Anderson Hospital there.

Today, that gloomy prognosis has changed. Leukemia and related diseases such as Hodgkin's are among the types of cancer that have shown the greatest gains in cure rates, according to a recent National Cancer Institute report.

Survival Rate Jumps

The five-year survival rate for children with acute lymphocytic leukemia--the most frequently occurring leukemia in children--has jumped from 4% in 1963 to 65% today, according to a National Cancer Institute report.

For all forms of leukemia, the survival rate for children has increased dramatically. In the past 15 years, more than 12,000 children had survived five years, children who would not have lived if they'd been afflicted with the disease in the 1950s, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

At major treatment centers, adult survival rates are nearing those for children, according to the Leukemia Society. This development is particularly welcome to leukemia specialists, who note that although leukemia often is considered a childhood disease, it afflicts eight times as many adults as children. Indeed, more than half of all cases of leukemia occur in persons over age 60.

With a cure rate approaching 90%, Hodgkin's disease is now one of the most treatable forms of cancer, a fact the Leukemia Society credits to improved chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

McCredie said much of this new hope for leukemia victims is due to the work of the Tri-County chapter and the other 56 chapters of the Leukemia Society of America, which is headquartered in New York.

Since its founding in 1949, the national Leukemia Society has raised more than $32 million for research seeking a cure for leukemia. The organization also sponsors patient financial assistance programs, professional education, public education and community service projects, according to Tri-County's Petritsch.

This year, the national Leukemia Society allocated more than $4.7 million towards its research program, which Petritsch said was underwritten in part by a $121,000 grant from the Tri-County chapter.

40,000 to Die

This research has enabled specialists to learn much about leukemia, lymphomas (of which Hodgkin's disease is the major form) and multiple myeloma. These are malignant diseases that doctors say affect the blood-forming and infection-fighting tissues and organs--mainly the bone marrow, lymph nodes and spleen.

Despite the progress that has been made in combating the disease, leukemia and its allied illnesses will strike approximately 68,000 Americans this year and will cause the death of another 40,000, according to the National Leukemia Society.

Spurred on by these deaths, the Tri-County chapter maintains a high profile in Orange County, mainly through it's fund-raising events and speakers' bureau, Petritsch said.

At its second annual Jazzercise-a-thon at Cypress College in April, the local Leukemia Society raised $24,000 from 300 participants who had obtained money pledges from supporters for every Jazzercise routine they completed.

The local chapter provides money not only for research but also to leukemia victims who find themselves financially strapped due to their disease, Petritsch noted. Last year the Tri-County chapter had more than 160 patients enrolled in its patient financial assistance program and spent nearly $32,000 aiding them.

The local Leukemia Society depends on both a professional staff of four headed by executive director Ginny Reid and a core group of 50 volunteers--although in any one year another 150 volunteers assists the local chapter, Petritsch said. While a third of the volunteers get involved in the local chapter because they know someone with leukemia, the remainder are like Petritsch.

Petritsch, a certified public accountant who moved here from Chicago five years ago, recalls that he was looking for an opportunity to become involved in Orange County community affairs when a friend invited him to help answer phones during a Leukemia Society telethon four years ago.

Even though Petritsch's work with the Leukemia Society since that telethon has turned out to be more time-consuming than he expected, the 37-year-old father of two said his enthusiasm hasn't waned. Indeed, Petritsch's wife, Sandy, has become almost as involved in the local chapter as he has.

Poster Child Deaths

"Every year we have a new poster child, and in the last two years two of our poster children have died," Petritsch said, explaining his continued commitment to the cause. "Both had been in remission for years, and we'd all hoped that it would be permanent.

"But they died within one year of each other. It was a bad experience. I keep the picture of one of the girls in my office to remind me of the work that has to be done. Once you get involved, you see a lot of suffering. But it gives you the incentive to work even harder."

Leukemia victims and their families frequently find it psychologically difficult to deal with the disease, said Petritsch, noting that counseling services are provided by the Leukemia Society. "I know a man whose child has leukemia, but he hasn't been able to bring himself to admit that his child has the disease."

This phenomenon is not uncommon among parents, Petritsch says. Many parents find it nearly unbearable to watch their children not only lose their health but also suffer the negative side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, which include loss of hair and nausea.

"There are a large number of couples who get divorced because the mother and father aren't able to deal with their kid having leukemia," Petritsch says. "They can't live a life that revolves around the life and death struggles of a child with leukemia."

For adults, leukemia can be a stigmatizing disease. "If I had leukemia I don't know if I'd admit it to my colleagues," Petritsch said.

"Having leukemia doesn't help you on your job because being treated for it means that you'll probably miss a couple of months from work. Some people who go into remission and are ready to go back to work find out that they don't have a job to go back to."

Finding Job Difficult

Leukemia victims in remission who are looking for jobs have a particularly difficult time, says Petritsch. "If you've had any form of cancer, it's next to impossible to get medical insurance. And a lot of companies won't hire people who don't qualify for insurance.

"So you can see that when it comes to educating people about leukemia we've got our work cut out for us."

However, Petritsch is encouraged by the successes in treating patients such as Lynda Appling. Thanks to advances in chemotherapy--the administration of a combination of several drugs to the patient to bring the malignancy into remission or abatement--Appling not only overcame Hodgkin's disease, but she has shown no signs of the illness for nearly three years.

Not only is Appling in remission and quickly approaching the five-year survival date that most cancer specialists say indicates a patient is "cured" of leukemia and related diseases, she also has resumed her life.

Now 38, she has returned to her job as an airline flight attendant and often puts in 12-hour days. "It's as if I'd never had cancer," says an amazed Appling.

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