day before Thanksgiving 2011, Jess Senn Salmonowicz was looking
forward to her mom’s traditional Black Friday party.
enjoying food and fellowship that day, though, Salmonowicz found
herself being admitted to Froedtert Hospital to begin treatment for
acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
No patient is
prepared for that kind of diagnosis, according to Salmonowicz’
oncologist, Dr. Ehab Atallah. Salmonowicz, then a seemingly healthy
29-year-old high school Spanish teacher, was no different.
fatigued for a while — falling asleep early, feeling achy after only
a little exercise, just run down. Suspecting she was merely anemic,
she went to her primary care provider for a blood test on Thanksgiving
Eve. Friday morning, she got a call saying she had to see a doctor
that very day.
into the room and tell someone, ‘You have leukemia, and I am
starting chemotherapy in a couple hours,’" explains Atallah.
"There’s no time to even wrap your head around what is going
With her brother
Garret at her side, Salmonowicz had to call her parents and break the
news. "It scared them, and me even more. I think I cried pretty
much the whole first day because it is such an emotional
overload," recalls Salmonowicz, who grew up in Richfield.
Salmonowicz, Atallah — a hematologist who specializes in leukemia
care at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin — had a
gameplan. He got his new patient enrolled in a clinical trial that put
Salmonowicz on a chemotherapy schedule commonly used for children.
adults begin treatment by being admitted to a hospital for about a
month. This is called the induction phase. Next comes outpatient
intravenous chemo — four days a week, for six to eight months
(consolidation or intensification phase). Then comes 18 to 24 months
of oral and IV chemo (maintenance phase).
Ehab Atallah with patient Jess Senn Salxmonowicz
go through those same phases, but "the regimens are more
dose-intense," says Atallah. For instance, child patients receive
approximately 20 shots of chemotherapy directly into the spine;
adults, an average of just eight.
No matter how
you cut it, Salmonowicz would not be going back to her classes at St.
Francis High School after the holiday weekend. In fact, she was out
the rest of the academic year.
With ALL, there’s
no time to waste. It is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow
makes too many lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). These
abnormal cells can reproduce quickly and spread to other parts of the
body. Untreated, leukemia can be fatal within a few months. Nearly one
in 10 of all cancer deaths is from leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma.
"Once I got
a map of the plan, it sunk in that, ‘This is how we’re gonna beat
this,’" Salmonowicz says. "That put me at ease."
Until she was
diagnosed, Salmonowicz’ days revolved around soccer (she played all
four years at St. Norbert College in DePere) and running, going
camping, teaching and spending time with her boyfriend, friends and
Then, her life
became a series of tests and appointments and drugs. Her side effects
included intense nausea and no appetite. A couple months into her
treatments, she even had to be readmitted for three days to due to a
blood clot in her lung.
of stood still from when I went home from the hospital (in
mid-December 2011) until I went back to work in the fall (of 2012). It
was just me and my body, figuring out how we were going to deal with
this," she recalls. "Everybody was super supportive and
surrounding me with love and care. But in the end, you’re the only
one who knows how you’re feeling and what you’re going through.
with those feelings every day. You have to wake up and make that
decision — am I going to be positive today, or am I just going to
stay in bed and cry about it?"
So, she fought
through it. She was declared cancer-free on March 16, 2012. Two months
later, on a picnic in Door County, her boyfriend Bill proposed; they
were married in 2013 and now live in Madison, where she works as a
trainer for Epic Systems Corp.
considers Salmonowicz cured because she is three-plus years out from
her diagnosis. "Somewhere between three and five years, the
number of (relapse) events goes down significantly," he adds.
And this year’s
Black Friday party? The celebration is bound to be the best yet. Jess
will be there … along with her husband and their newborn baby.
symptoms of leukemia:
tired, weak, dizzy or lightheaded
that don’t go away or keep coming back
such as frequent or severe nosebleeds and bleeding gums
in the abdomen
or bone pain
American Cancer Society