Survivor Since: 2016

Diagnosis: Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Missouri Cancer Care Team:

Chemotherapy Care Team:

  • Amy Boyle, RN
  • Danielle Kleithermes, RN
  • Denise Huff, RN
  • Erin Swift, RN
  • Johanna Joes, RN
  • Mung Chin, RN

Treatment: Chemotherapy

My New Normal

A cancer diagnosis is going to be a shock. But for 36-year-old Emily Hawkins, her diagnosis set her world into a spin unlike anything she ever expected. Within the course of 24 hours, she went from knowing she was sick with strep throat to the start of a 25-day hospital stay with chemotherapy dripping into her arm. Within a week, she was facing knowledge about her body and reproductive health that added to the shock and heartache.

Today, a year later, Emily has come through to the other side of cancer treatment: remission. Grateful for those who helped her along the way, from Missouri Cancer Associates (MCA) doctors and nurses to her parents, she’s learned to trust life again – through a journey that started with a whirlwind and taught her lessons in acceptance and taking things as they come.

Winter months are notorious as cold and flu season, and in February 2016, Emily was sick. Without a primary doctor, she went to Providence Urgent Care for help, and by chance, she was seen by Dr. Jason Zerrer, one of the clinic’s owners and a friend. Within nine days, she returned to the clinic five times, walking away with diagnoses of strep throat and thrush – and finding no relief for her malaise and the headaches and fatigue she was feeling.

Dr. Zerrer called Emily to follow-up and, dissatisfied with her progress, asked her to come in to see him.

“He said, ‘We are going to draw blood and figure this thing out,” Emily remembers. “They took my levels – they were so bad. My white blood count was off the charts high, my potassium so low.”

Retesting her blood produced the same results, and Dr. Zerrer told her to go straight to the hospital. Getting a ride from a friend to Boone Hospital, she told her friend to drop her off – there was no need for her to stay. Emily thought she’d enter the hospital, get an IV for some fluids, and then leave feeling better.

She walked into Boone Hospital on Feb. 18.

“That day I heard three words that would change me forever,” Emily says. “‘You have leukemia.’” Battling for her life, suffering from a greatly compromised immune system, she didn’t leave the hospital for the next 25 days.

A surreal loneliness marked the moment on Feb. 18 at Boone Hospital when the doctor revealed Emily’s diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Emily recalls three random people she didn’t know in the room – the doctor, nurses. Her parents were driving from their home in Iowa to Columbia, knowing their daughter was sick, but not knowing how sick.

“I wanted to know why,” Emily says. “I wanted to know what had happened to cause this.”

The answer was that they don’t know what causes leukemia. She hadn’t done anything that caused her to develop the disease. In fact, AML in someone Emily’s age is a rarity – the disease most often afflicts young children or those older in age.

That day she met people who would soon become staunch allies in her fight against cancer, including Dr. Mark Tungsevik from Missouri Cancer Associates (MCA) and Mung Chin, her nurse navigator (now a nurse at MCA) who would become one of her best friends through the course of her journey.

Dr. Tungsevik immediately ordered a bone marrow biopsy. Friends from her job as operations manager at Caledon Virtual came to the hospital to see her. She called her parents in the car and told them the news.

“It was shock and whirlwind,” Emily says.

Twenty-four hours later, the biopsy results confirmed the initial leukemia diagnosis and put treatment immediately into motion. As a nurse put a PICC line in Emily’s arm, Mung explained the side effects that seven straight days of chemo may have – hair loss, nausea, vomiting.

Around 10 p.m. that night Emily started chemotherapy.

“When people think about cancer, they might think about chemo and radiation – going and getting treatment at a clinic,” she says. “That’s not what I went through.

The chemotherapy side effects turned out to be of less concern than how sick and fatigued she felt because of her compromised immune system. She spent more than two weeks only able to eat or drink very little and receiving so many blood and plasma transfusions that she lost count.

Twenty-five days after being admitted to Boone, Emily was finally able to go home, but her treatment wasn’t over. She prepared herself for what she expected to be the next step, a bone marrow transplant, and arrived with her parents at Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis for a meeting with a leukemia specialist. She was ready to stay in St. Louis for 30 days, as the transplant would require, but at Siteman, she received a lesson in relinquishing control.

“I went there with one idea – bone marrow transplant,” Emily says.

A planner by nature, she was upset at first to learn that the bone marrow transplant she expected wasn’t the recommended course of action. Instead, she began a four-month journey on consolidated chemo – with the knowledge the treatment held a 35 to 40 percent chance of success.

The next four months unfolded into regular cycles of consolidated chemo rounds, returning home, getting sick and heading back into the hospital.

“My body was amazing, like clockwork,” Emily says. On July 19, 2016, she finished her last round of chemo. She was an emotional mess. “When it was over, I was not okay,” she says. “I was trying to figure out what to do next.”

By mid-August, she was back at work. The 35 to 40 percent success rate for the consolidated chemo hung over her head. She waited for the cancer to come back.

A month later, she said something “finally clicked.”

“I decided to stop living my life waiting for the cancer to come back and to appreciate what I had been given. Since that day, I have found true happiness,” says Emily.

She’s now back to work full time at Caledon Virtual, in a new relationship, and enjoying life. She gives thanks to her parents, Norm and Shelley Hawkins, for their support through her journey.

“They put their lives on hold to help save mine,” she says.

She also expresses gratitude for the staff at MCA and Boone Hospital.

“The staff at MCA and Boone got me thru everything,” Emily says, looking back over the past year. “I spent more than 65 days at the hospital, developing relationships with the doctors, nurses and staff that truly did help save my life. The team knew me and my family so well and treated us with incredible care and love that we will never forget.”