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Woman Cancer Free - Adult Stem Cell at Work

By Tammie Toler, Bluefield Daily Telegraph, September 21, 2007

It's seems unusual to say that someone would be renewing themselves near the age of 70, but that is just what Dixie Sisk did.

The Mercer County mother and grandmother decided it was time to try a controversial, cutting-edge treatment that could give her a chance at living cancer-free. She had already endured and survived through repeated rounds of chemotherapy, and 89 radiation treatments during her 11 year bought with cancer.

Sisk, with the hopes of seeing her grandchildren grow up, agreed to the stem cell transplant. However, her doctors were skeptical of her chance for success.

“I’ve got two grandsons, a 6-year-old and a 14-year-old. When I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, all the doctors said they could give me was a band-aid. A band-aid doesn’t cover much,” she said.

Federal guidelines didn't stand in the way of the line of cells she needed, and she never had to wait for a match. The stem cells were harvested from her own body instead.

She said misinformation leaves many scared about stem cells, but the science allowed her to have a new life.

“There’s a lot of misconception regarding the stem cell studies,” Sisk said. “We’re only hearing one small portion of the information in relation to stem cell research. They can really be harvested in many ways.”

She is proud to share the truth. A year following her transplant, Sisk says she has survived her battle with cancer and feels blessed to have had the opportunity to undergo the treatment.

“I live every day with gratitude. I live every day determined to do anything and everything I can to help any individual, because that’s why I’m here,” she said this week.

Sisk's ribs became sore and she began to feel tired all the time. At the age of 59, she realized that something wasn't right.

She went to Dr. Rowena Chambers, expecting to hear that she had cracked a rib somehow or perhaps sprained a muscle. The answer she got was worse, much worse. Multiple myeloma is a cancer that attacks the plasma cells in the blood that makes up bone marrow, and Dr. Chambers diagnosed Sisk with the condition. It is often characterized by diffuse osteoporosis, usually in the skull, ribs, spine, and pelvis.

“Dr. Chambers immediately started me on medication,” Sisk said.

Her cancer was defined as incurable, and a variety of doctors from Winston-Salem, N.C., Princeton, and Knoxville, Tenn., tried to remedy the situation as best as they could over the next few years following her 1996 diagnosis.

She lost her energy and hair as she underwent multiple rounds of chemotherapy and 89 radiation treatments. However, even when the experts told her that there was no hope left, Sisk remained upbeat.

“One of my doctors told me there was no hope, even with a stem cell transplant. When I came back and told Dr. Chambers that, she said, ‘There’s always hope.’ She didn’t tell me then, but later, she told me she thought I had about three years to live,” Sisk said.

She refused to stop fighting no matter what was thrown her way.

She was actively raising a family, writing for the Princeton Times, and even started the Princeton Camera Club; the disease took almost everything out of the energetic woman. Her survival was inspired by her faith and family.

“My strength comes from my faith and my belief in God. If I didn’t have that, I’d just fold up my tent,” she said.

Sisk's battle with cancer continued, but at the same time, Juston Thacker, who is one of her grandsons, was fighting the war on terror overseas.

By 2004, even though doctors told her repeatedly it would not help her kind of cancer, Sisk said she had spent a lot of time praying about whether she should try the stem cell harvesting and transplant procedure.

“Every time I would pray about it, it was like I got the same answer, ‘Wait,’” she recalled.

Sisk decided that it was time to harvest stem cells from her blood in the spring of 2004; it was eight years into her cancer diagnosis. Sisk had time to decide whether to go through with the procedure since the cells could be frozen for up to five years.

Sisk new that her oldest grandson, Juston, supported her decision, but he was concerned and confused at first. She pulled him aside and told him that she was going to go for it.

The 21-year-old is a U.S. Marine, and was getting ready to go back to Afghanistan for a second time. The PSHS graduate was facing his own fight.

When she found out her grandson was going back to war, she was wearing a bandanna to cover her head since she had recently lost her hair from chemotherapy.

“I told him, ‘I’ve got the haircut. I just need the boots. I’m going with you,’” she said.

But she couldn't fight any insurgents for Juston, and he couldn't help fight her cancer.

The family got word that Juston had died during an ambush on June 24, 2004. This was only a few weeks after Sisk underwent the harvest procedure.

“If I had gone ahead with the transplant procedure, I would have been recuperating, and I wouldn’t have gotten to spend any time with Juston before he left,” she said. “I’m very thankful I did things the way I did.”

Doctors created more of the cells she would need to regenerate bone marrow as Sisk made many visits to Chambers' office for weeks leading up to the procedure. She received injections designed to boost her stem cell division.

Not quite painful, but more surreal is how Sisk would describe the harvesting procedure.

Sisk said specialists removed her blood from one arm, passed it through a machine designed to extract the necessary stem cells and fed the blood back into her body through veins in the other arm when she was at Wake Forest Medical Center.

“It’s really weird laying there, watching your blood run through tubes,” she said.

She was ready to go home, knowing her own blood cells were available, should she ever decide to try the transplant. The whole process took about four hours along with a period of observation.

Knowing that Juston would always be present in their hearts but would always leave an empty seat at holiday gatherings, Sisk and her family were accustomed to living with cancer and had even found a new normal by late 2006.

In an attempt to kill any cancer cells living in her bone marrow, a strong round of chemotherapy had to be used prior to the stem cell transplant.

Sisk's doctors told her that she was having a new birthday on November 8th 2006. Sisk got her stem cell transplant then and was immediately transferred to a "clean room" in the hospital.

“I asked them, ‘Does that mean I’m 68, instead of 70?’” she said with a laugh.

There was still much healing to be done before Sisk or her family could celebrate, but Sisk's sense of humor remained with her through it all.

The stem cells needed time to grow and divide, building her bone marrow back since the combination of cancer and chemotherapy had all but killed her immune system.

With the understanding that she would still keep her surroundings as sterile as possible to avoid any infections, she was discharged from the hospital after spending two weeks in a sterile, clutter-free hospital room.

“I was only permitted to go to Dr. Chambers’ for blood work, and even my family that came to visit had to wear gloves and masks,” she said.

Her recovery wasn't a relaxing home stay.

Sisk was left exhausted by everyday activities which she struggled through and she came down with shingles. However good news came in the form of blood tests in January.

“They did a bone marrow test. When the tests came back, there were no cancer cells there,” she said.

Sisk said she knows she’ll never really be called cured, but the tests still look good nine months down the road.

“A cancer patient walks a thin line, because you know cancer is one disease that can always come back,” she said. “I do have a much freer feeling within me, though.”

Sisk strives to make every day and every life a little better than she found it, but still gets tired easily.

Sisk walked a half lap with her youngest grandson Lucas last week in honor of Juston, victims of Sept. 11 and the military and emergency responders that work to keep America safe. She stopped after that to save her energy for the candlelight vigil that night at Mercer Mall.

Sisk encourages her doctors and nurses to give her phone number to cancer patients and families who need a willing ear, a shoulder to lean on or a dose of humor.

She knows for sure that hope is always there waiting for someone to grasp it.

“Walking the path with cancer is precarious. Many times, the biggest thing is overcoming the word. I always tell people that the first three letters of the word are C-A-N, and the last three are C-E-R. I think that means, ‘I CAN CERtainly survive,’” she said. “You may lose your hair, but hey, they make wonderful wigs now. I had a Dolly Parton wig one time. I just couldn’t manufacture the rest of her.”

Sisk said she’s optimistic research can grow new opportunity and save lives despite the controversy over stem cell science and testing.

She does not support any testing or research using embryonic stem cells, which she does not hesitate to point out.

In her eyes, supporting such practices would be akin to supporting abortion since the cells are harvested from aborted embryos.

However, she thinks the research and medicine using adult stem cells is amazing.

“I was just reading the other day how some parents are choosing to preserve the umbilical cords in case their baby needs stem cells in the future. Gee! How wonderful is that?” she said.

As rough as her road to remission has been, Sisk said she would encourage any cancer patients to “ask questions, reach out and try new treatments.”

“If I could encourage anyone to try stem cell transplants, I would do it,” she said.

Beyond that, she said her only advice would be to truly embrace each day.

“If God has given me these days, why not live each day to the fullest? Why not enjoy them?” she asked.


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