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Faith and Hope for the Future: Karen’s Myelofibrosis Story

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Published on October 22, 2016

Is surviving enough?  Is it possible to have a normal life while dealing with a rare cancer? This is Karen’s story. Karen is an 11-year survivor, diagnosed with myelofibrosis (MF) after a severe bout with vertigo. In many ways, her story is like so many others. But as you listen to her tell it, you hear the hope and faith that is woven into her daily life.  From diagnosis to clinical trials to future outlook, Karen’s “What do I have to lose?” attitude permeates her daily perspective.

This town meeting was sponsored by the Patient Empowerment Network, which received an educational grant from Incyte Corporation. It was produced by Patient Power in partnership with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. 

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Transcript | Faith and Hope for the Future: Karen’s Myelofibrosis Story

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That's how you’ll get care that's most appropriate for you.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you. 

Andrew Schorr:

Hello. Welcome to Patient Power.  I'm Andrew Schorr.  Well, any of us living with an MPN and maybe particularly with myelofibrosis which is often seen as the most serious one—I have it—we take great heart in meeting someone who has been living a long time with it and living well. Karen Henneke, thank you so much for joining us. 

Karen:

Thank you. 

Andrew Schorr:

From Hallettsville, Texas, right, about 80 miles or so from Houston… 

Karen:

 Yes.

Andrew Schorr:

…where we are now. You were diagnosed with myelofibrosis in 2007.  You had vertigo. Tell us about that. 

Karen:

Well, I woke up one morning, had vertigo, out of character, so I went to the emergency room, and luckily the ER doctor there, he said I think you're bleeding internally, because the red blood counts were so low.  He did a bunch of testing, came back all negative, and he looked at me and he said, I think you have myelofibrosis.  

Andrew Schorr:

You said, huh? 

Karen:

I did.  I said, what?  So he referred me to oncologist, hematologist, and I went in, did the bone marrow biopsy, which confirmed myelofibrosis. And that doctor immediately got me in with Dr. Verstovsek, which I felt was a godsend.

Andrew Schorr:

A specialist. 

Karen:

 Yes.

Andrew Schorr:

Now, what were you told then about how it would affect your life, how long you might live? 

Karen:

Well, in 2007 when I was diagnosed, you were told that you had approximately five years was the life span, and, you know, because everything was so new.  And so I was put on some trials, and some worked, some didn't, but I was thankful that at least if something didn't work then there was something else to look forward to.

And so it's just been very—I love Dr. Verstovsek.  Been great working with him, because he's always got something new and willing to try something new.  

Andrew Schorr:

Well, and we'll talk about that in a second, but let's talk about your life back home.  You live on a ranch with over 100 acres.  You and your husband, Buck, are deer hunters, and you go fishing, you do crafts, 11 grandchildren. 

Karen:

Yes, 11 grandchildren.

Andrew Schorr:

Ten boys and one girl.

Karen:

One girl. 

Andrew Schorr:

And up until just a few months ago when you retired, you had a pretty demanding job.  I understand you were the secretary for a county sheriff. 

Karen:

 Yes.

Andrew Schorr:

So how did you keep on with your life when you'd been told you had a life-threatening condition? 

Karen:

Well, I had faith in God and was thankful for every day he gave me. And I just got up every day and tried to make the best of the situation—just got up, got dressed, did my routine, went to work, and just kind of put it on the back burner, really.  You know, I listened to my body.  If I didn't feel good, you know, I would take time out and rest. And my husband knows. I'll go, time out, and he knows I need to rest, and he's real good about, you know, you look like you need to rest. You look a little tired. 

But I didn't push myself, but I kept going, and I think you have to keep going every day.  You just—some days are harder than the others, but you have to keep going and pushing yourself and just keep the hope and the faith that, you know, something good's going to come along.  

Andrew Schorr:

And with the help of your local doctors you connected with a super specialist…

Karen:

Yeah.

Andrew Schorr:

…is what I call Dr. Verstovsek, and there are just a handful around the world.  And so that led to discussing could your participation in research in a clinical trial maybe help you and others, and you decided to do that. 

Karen:

Oh, yes.  Any—you know, like I tell him every time I see him, I trust you. Whatever you think I need to be on, put me on it, because I trust him.  He is to me a world authority on this.  People travel worldwide just to come see him and to MD—and how lucky we are to be this close to MD Anderson and to have access to him and all the doctors and all the trials and medicines, they're here.  

You know, I'm two hours away from here. Some people travel from Europe, you know, everywhere.  So I feel real fortunate to be a patient of Dr. Verstovsek's and to be able to participate in all the trials that he can offer.  

Andrew Schorr:

Right.  I think the point for everyone, wherever they are in the world is, connect with an MPN specialist. 

Karen:

Yeah. 

Andrew Schorr:

And have them—and even if you go back home, like your doctors I'm sure out in Hallettsville, they help…

Karen:

Oh, yeah, they do. 

Andrew Schorr:

…in following you and providing information to fit in with an overall plan… 

Karen:

Right.

Andrew Schorr:

…that your MPN specialist has authored, if you will, for you.  Okay. So what would you say to other people about considering being part of a clinical trial? 

Karen:

I'd say what do you have to lose? You know, if your doctor is recommending it to you, he knows you inside and out, and if he's recommending it to you, then he must think you're going to benefit from it.  Your particular situation is going to benefit possibly from the use of this trial.  So that's the way I look at it.  If Dr. Verstovsek says I want you on this and this, I'm going to do it.  Because, as my husband states, he's kept me alive for nine years, and I'm very fortunate, very, very fortunate.  So... 

Andrew Schorr:

So, Karen, what's your outlook for the future?  So on day one you were told, well, maybe you've got five years to live, and now we're nine years down the road.  You look great. 

Karen:

Oh, thank you. 

Andrew Schorr:

And you just retired, and I know you have plans with Buck to do some things. 

Karen:

Well, we were talking about it. We've been married almost together 20 years.  And I said, Boy, we might get another 20.  So, you know, we're looking way out in the future.  I'm—like I said, when it's my time to go I'm going to come sliding in sideways going yee?haw, you know.  I mean, I just live every day, try to, to the fullest and the best and do, you know, just do good and be thankful for what I have and look forward to the future and my family and my husband, you know. 

Just, you have to have that hope and that faith that—you know, and don't—I don't thrive on it that I'm sick. I try not to.  There's some days that it reminds me, my body reminds me, but, you know, I try not to think about it every day.  I just try to let the medicine and the doctors do their work, and I do my work by trying to stay positive, and I think a positive attitude is very, very important.  

Andrew Schorr:

So that's what you'd say. If somebody's watching this and they're newly diagnosed or their loved one is and they're terrified...

Karen:

Yeah.

Andrew Schorr:

…what would you say to them to get past that?  

Karen:

Well, everybody's terrified when you're first—because you hear the word "cancer," and that's going to terrify anybody. But just have faith and just know that your doctor's working as hard as he can to get a cure, because I feel like Dr. Verstovsek is.  He's working very hard to cure this, and I just stay positive. You know, just get a lot of support around you.  If you have your bad days, okay, don't beat yourself up.  Next day get up and have a better day, you know.  Because you are going to have bad days, and you're going to have good days. So just stay positive and, you know, just have faith in God that, you know, he can do miracles. 

Andrew Schorr:

And one last question for family members. Buck, your husband, worries about you,

Karen:

Mm?hmm. 

Andrew Schorr:

…and there are people watching who are loved ones of people diagnosed with this condition none of us had ever heard of.

Karen:

Oh, yeah. 

Andrew Schorr:

What would you say to them, so they can maybe worry less…

Karen:

Wow.

Andrew Schorr:

…take their cues from you and just keep on enjoying life?

Karen:

I tell you, being a caregiver is a very, very hard job, very hard.  And it's—just, for people that are caregivers, watch and just you kind of have to go with the flow because, like I said, we have our good days, we have our bad days. There [are] days we don't feel good at all, and you just kind of have to be sympathetic, and I think that's the best thing that you can do.  Just listen to them if they're hurting, listen to them if they don't feel good, maybe, you know, a little upset because, like I said, people hear "cancer," and you can get upset. 

And just try to be supportive as you can, but don't beat yourself up.  You know, you just kind of have to go with the flow and be just positive. You know, say, hey, it's going to get better or, you know.  My husband always says it could always be worse, and that's true.  I have to remind myself there [are] a lot of people in this world that are a lot sicker than I am, so you just have to keep a positive attitude. 

Andrew Schorr:

Well, you and Buck have, I hope, at least another 20 years together. 

Karen:

I do too. 

Andrew Schorr:

You have a lot to look forward to.

Karen:

I do.  I do.  

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Fishing. 

Karen:

Fishing, hunting. 

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.

Karen:

We gave up boat season this morning, opening season so, yeah, we're looking forward to all of it. I look forward to every day. 

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. Well, all the best to you. 

Karen:

Well, thank you so much.

Andrew Schorr:

Thank you, and you're an inspiration to me, because I've been living with this now five years, you nine. I want that other four and I want 20 more, too.  

Karen:

You'll get it.  You'll get it.  

Andrew Schorr:

Thank you very much. Andrew Schorr with my new friend Karen hoping to live a long life even with myelofibrosis, and we want our doctors to cure it, right? 

Karen:

That's right. 

Andrew Schorr:

And we're going to work towards that. Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all. 

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.