Cancer fight turns personal for mother-to-be


Stephanie Richmond: "Keep your head up and fight"

One day cancer will be eliminated, but until then the Marion County Relay for Life, which raises money for the American Cancer Society, represents hope for those in the midst the fight.

For one 1997 Hillsboro High School graduate, the battle started about five months ago when she went in for her first eight-week pregnancy check-up.

Stephanie Richmond, 30, who now lives in Newton, said she went in Jan. 21 for lab work and later that afternoon was advised to see her primary care physician the next morning.

?I was told my white blood cell counts were elevated,? Richmond said. ?They did not tell me at that time what the counts were, though.?

For the rest of that afternoon she researched what an elevated WBC count meant.

?I googled everything and (the information) kept coming back pointed towards leukemia with small bits here and there of infection, sickness and strep throat,? she said.

Richmond hoped for the best thinking strep because it was going around in Hesston at the time.

?I completely disregarded the remote possibility of it being leukemia because I was healthy, too young, not sick or symptomatic,? she said.

Challenging news

On Jan. 22, she went to her doctor alone because her husband was at work. The doctor came in with a solemn look on her face.

?Based on your WBC level, we believe you have leukemia,? the doctor told her.

A normal WBC range is between 5,000 and 10,000, but Richmond?s was at 296,400?30 times the maximum level.

?At that point, the world stopped moving,? Richmond said. ?I just sat there, completely dumbfounded before bursting into tears.?

Although Richmond asked ?Why me???she said she also considered this a miracle pregnancy because if not for being pregnant, the leukemia might not have been discovered in time.

The next step, that same day, was to see a Wichita oncologist.

?I called my husband (Lee) at work and just told him he needed to meet me at Newton Medical Center ASAP because of an emergency,? she said.

When he arrived and was informed of the news, his reaction was basically the same as hers: ?We?ll get through this.?

Clear diagnosis

At the Cancer Center of Kansas, Richmond said she was still in denial. It didn?t help noticing she was the youngest person in the waiting room by 25 to 30 years.

The oncologist needed more blood work done and in order to confirm the suspected diagnosis, a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, too.

The tests were done Jan. 23 and the diagnosis came back Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia or CML, which is an uncommon type of cancer of the red blood cells. About 4,800 people are diagnosed with this type every year; it only occurs in one in 100,000 pregnant women.

Richmond?s doctor told her the main risk factors included being an older adult and being overexposed to radiation.

?They say a family history of is not a risk factor and it is very rare to occur in females,? Richmond said. ?They don?t know what triggers it.?

Plan of attack

Initial prescribed treatment was to use Interpheron-Alpha. But with the excessive sickness it would cause Richmond, particularly while pregnant, the doctor, after consulting a doctor in Houston, Texas, opted for another route.

The alternative was Thera?peutic Apheresis.

?The simplest way to describe the procedure would be to compare it to dialysis, but with blood,? she said. ?A metal needle in inserted into the vein of each arm; they pull blood out of the dominant arm and run it through a centrifuge to remove as many WBC as possible.?

The ?junk? white blood cells are collected in a bag, along with a certain amount of red blood cells and platelets. Then the ?clean? blood is run through a warmer saline; some anticoagulant is added, and it is returned into the non-dominant arm.

?During the procedure, which takes about 2.5 hours, I cannot move, sit up very far in bed or sleep,? Richmond said. ?I had to stay awake and continue squeezing a stress ball to keep the vein open so it doesn?t collapse.?

The first treatment was Jan 28, then every Monday, Wednes?day and Friday in February.

?It got really old, really fast lying in a hospital bed, unable to move anything except your legs, and having to rely on someone else to feed and water you, and change the television channel,? Richmond said. ?I felt like a house plant, completely and totally helpless.?

Through this series of treatments, her white blood count was reduced from 296,400 to about 68,000 by March 1.

During February, she also had to have five blood transfusions because of low hemoglobin counts.

Once into her second trimester of pregnancy, she was able to start using the Hydrea pill. The initial treatment was March 4. It reduced the WBC from 68,000 to 40,000 and it continued to drop after that.

The lowest level getting back into ?normal? range is at 8,000.

?My body was able to self-regulate for a while, but within the last month, the white blood cell count has been going back up for some reason,? she said. ?May 18 it was 18,600, but last Monday (June 8) it was up to 48,500.?

As of June 15, after two more rounds of Hydrea, she was still waiting on lab results. But during the interview, she said her results came in at 55,100 and now is required to take a full dose of the Hydrea rather than a limited dosage.

Positive prognosis

While her prognosis is still positive, she will start the chemo pill Gleevec after her delivery.

?Side effects are minimal, though my oncologist has informed me that this will be my only pregnancy,? Richmond said.

Richmond offered a few words of hope to someone diagnosed with the disease: ?Never give up the fight and never give up hope. Medical miracles occur every day.

?Keep your head up and fight,? she added. ?I spent the first three days crying, and by the end of the third day, my eyes and head hurt so bad I couldn?t muster up any more tears.?

Richmond said she has never been a quitter and she wasn?t going to ?curl up in a corner to die.? She decided to fight?not only for her life, but for the life of her baby.

Family and friends have been a great source of comfort.

?They are your very own personal lifesavers and cheerleaders,? she said.

Richmond said the American Cancer Society is promoting itself as ?The Official Sponsor of Birthdays.? This is her first Relay for Life.

?I was initially asked to come and participate in the Survivor Lap, but that has since transitioned into actively participating with a team,? she said.

In fact, after sending out messages to her support network, Richmond had 18 people respond, prompting her to create two teams.

?So far, we raised over $3,000 and the event isn?t until Friday,? she said.

Richmond, Marion County Fair manager, hasn?t named her ?Jellybean? yet.

?I am due Sept. 1, so during the week of the fair, I?ll be 35 weeks pregnant.?

For more information about the Relay for Life, call 620-382-3690. Last year?s event raised $50,000.

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