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Wilmot Stories

Debra Burnham

Breast cancer and acute myeloid leukemia

The chances of Debra Burnham getting leukemia after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2010 were extremely low — less than 1 percent.   

But it happened.

Six years after she underwent a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and seven weeks of daily radiation for breast cancer, Debra discovered a bruise in the center of her abdomen. She figured it was just from some work that she and her husband Chad had been doing on their house, but she decided to have it checked out to be safe.

Two days later, on her way from a meeting and returning to work, she got the call that she had leukemia.

“It definitely changed our perspective on life.” Debra says. “In one day, just like that, our life changed.”

Instead of returning to work that day, she returned to her home in Penn Yan, packed her bag and soon headed up to Wilmot Cancer Center in Rochester. She started treatment right away with her hematologist, Jason Mendler, M.D.

“You certainly look at odds differently today. You know, I don’t know why we can’t win the lotto,” says her husband, Chad, jokingly.

Throughout her treatment, the odds seemed stacked against her, but her attitude and the people in her life helped. Using Facebook, she chronicled her journey to help others stay updated on her progress. Writing these posts became therapeutic to her.

Her team at Wilmot also helped make it bearable. 

“Everybody at the cancer center that we’ve dealt with, they’re just amazing people,” she says. “We had just amazing care.”

Approximately four months later, Debra was ready for a bone marrow transplant. Without a perfect match, her next step was a randomized clinical trial that offered either a transplant with stem cells from umbilical cord blood or a haploidentical bone marrow transplant, which uses a donor who is a 50-percent match.

Debra was assigned to have the haploidentical transplant, and her son, 26 years old at the time, was her donor.

The transplant went well, but about a year later, a bone marrow biopsy showed the leukemia was back.

She had to go through induction chemotherapy again to achieve remission. While bad luck showed up in the form of pneumonia and shingles around the same time, she recovered well and went on to receive her second transplant in June 2018, this time from cord blood units.  

Finally, at the 100-day mark, Debra and Chad received some good news: A bone marrow biopsy showed no leukemia and no evidence of MLL gene rearrangement, a genetic marker of her leukemia. Plus, she had 100 percent donor and zero percent host. 

“That’s the absolutely best results you could ask for,” Debra recalls her transplant doctor, Omar Aljitawi, M.B.B.S., saying.  

In the fall, she returned to work as transportation director at the Seneca Falls School District and has also gotten into exercise. Twice a week, she goes to the Thrive to Survive fitness recovery program at the Geneva YMCA with other cancer survivors. Support from groups like this, as well as the Hope Lodge in Rochester plus family, friends, strangers and her teams at Wilmot, have made a huge difference since her leukemia diagnosis.

Looking toward the future, Debra and Chad don’t know where the odds will take them but they’re focused on the good things they show today: Hugs and kisses with their 4-year-old grandson, her daughter and son-in-law’s child, and a new grandson, for her son and his wife, arriving in the spring. 

“It was a pretty scary time and I think we will always be nervous and scared of a relapse. But we will grasp every moment we have and enjoy it to the fullest,” she said. “We didn't know where this journey would take us. Obviously, God has a plan for me.”

“It definitely changed our perspective on life. In one day, just like that, our life changed.”