Hitting the Target on CML Becomes 'Gift of Grace'

Mar. 2, 2018

Minette BeabesIn the span of a few months back in 1997, when Minette Beabes was 31 years old, she experienced the true highs and lows of life.

The high was the birth of her son. Three months later came the low — a diagnosis of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a form of blood cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells.

At Wilmot Cancer Institute, her doctor ordered a genomic analysis of her leukemia cells and found an abnormality known as the BCR-ABL fusion gene. This gene is formed when pieces of chromosomes 9 and 22 break off and trade places. It codes for a protein that allows cells to divide uncontrollably, and it is commonly found in patients who have CML.

Her prognosis was dire. At the time, median survival for people with CML was four to six years, and few treatments were available.

“Back then, imagining seeing my son graduate from high school was not something I could do at all,” Beabes says. “I was just not able to see that far out.”

Her best option was a bone marrow transplant. Her sister donated the healthy cells she needed, and Dr. Jane Liesveld performed the procedure, which resulted in a four-year-long remission.

When the leukemia started to creep back, Liesveld was able to offer a new therapy that would specifically target the BCR-ABL cancer gene. The treatment, called imatinib (Gleevec), was not available when she was first diagnosed. It works by interfering with the protein that allows the uncontrolled cell growth, and it has transformed the care of many CML patients, including Beabes.

Now, more than 15 years later, Beabes remains in remission and her “baby” is 21 years old.

“It’s an enormous gift of grace to be able to see him grow up,” Beabes says.

A big believer in cancer research, Beabes asks her doctors to explain new treatment options and the latest science. She looks forward to a long life despite having to be on medication that comes with some bothersome side effects.

“My dad always said: ‘Somebody may have it a little better than you do, but there is always somebody who has it much worse.’ I am both grateful and optimistic,” she says. “It’s very exciting to see that more research is underway so that others can benefit from these new types of therapies that offer a much better quality of life.”

Beabes, originally from near Pittsburgh, had lived in New Hampshire before coming to Rochester for a job with Xerox Corp. She says being here proved fortuitous when she learned she had cancer.

“Having a place like the UR right here was very helpful,” she says. “I can’t say enough about the BMT (blood and marrow transplant) unit. I was really sick and everything was done to help me. It’s become my standard of care—now, whenever I go anywhere, that’s what I compare it to.”