The Spirit of a Survivor
Published: February 28, 2013
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She pushed herself through every hour, every day.
Jennifer Bunnell had no idea what would happen to her when she felt a large, hot and hard bump on her arm in early December of 2011. She thought it wasn't serious but still went to her doctor to have it examined.
"My arm kept feeling worse, to the point where I thought it would fall off," said Bunnell, a greater Abingtons area resident who works at Metlife in Clarks Summit. "I didn't know what was going on; I was in so much pain."
Bunnell's doctors thought she had a blood clot in her arm but, after a series of blood tests, it was discovered that her white blood cell count was 46,000 when a normal count is between 4 and 10,000. A further series of tests at both Tyler Memorial Hospital in Tunkhannock and at the Regional Hospital of Scranton, showed that Bunnell had Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), a very aggressive form of leukemia that affects the blood and bone marrow.
Before her diagnosis, Bunnell was a busy 26-year-old, either working, exercising at the gym or spending time with her boyfriend. Previous routine blood work didn't show changes in Bunnell's chemistry until two weeks before her diagnosis.
"When the doctor confirmed it was leukemia, I just broke down," she said. "After that, things happened so fast; I don't remember anything the next day."
Bunnell first had a bone marrow biopsy, which confirmed that she had AML. At this point, her white blood cell count had risen to over 100,000 and continued to rise. As her condition worsened, she developed fevers and a blood clot in her lung. Her doctors ordered 24-hour chemotherapy for a week, followed by a chemo push.
"I look back and I don't remember a lot that happened, just the big things," she said. "It seemed like everything was going wrong."
Bunnell was at the Regional Hospital of Scranton for 56 days straight, including Christmas day. For her, that was particularly painful.
"I was freaking out from everything," she recalled. "I didn't know what was going on. I was freaking out so much from my hair falling out that my dad had to come down on Christmas Day and shave all of my hair off."
After she was released, Bunnell had a two-week respite at home before she went to Philadelphia to discuss a bone marrow transplant, as there were no other options. She was still in constant pain and contracted a fungal infection, causing her to spend another month in the hospital.
Once things began to progress with her bone marrow transplant, she began to feel better both physically and mentally. The road to the transplant was rocky because it was hard to find the right donor. After testing her family, doctors had to test donors across the United States.
Bunnell's donor was a 25-year-old female, but the waiting had just begun.
"You cannot have a transplant until you are in remission," she explained. "The donor cells were coming in but they had to graft. There's a war going on in your body because it can reject the new cells coming in. You're taking a huge risk getting a transplant because you may not make it."
Bunnell was able to leave the hospital 19 days after the transplant but had to remain in Philadelphia for four months in order to remain close to her doctors. Anything could happen, she said - and everything did. Her body began to reject the cells from her donor and then she contracted a contagious infection.
Bunnell had to have another bone marrow biopsy, which determined that there was no more leukemia but that she did have a virus. Her blood platelets were too low and it seemed as if the grafting following the bone marrow transplant was not successful. Her platelets eventually started to produce, however, and she began to feel better. She passed her 100-day anniversary in September and, in November, she passed a milestone that told her she was going to be just fine.
"I was allowed to have Thanksgiving dinner," she said with a smile. "I didn't have a holiday since the previous Thanksgiving because I was always in the hospital for a holiday. Everything was getting better; I was off all of the ant-rejection drugs. I was pretty emotional in December for the one-year mark. I was home for Christmas and New Years. Everything was progressing and the doctors were happy with my progress."
"No one really knows what goes on when you have a transplant; there are so many things that could happen, even with leukemia," she added. "You have to stay away from a lot of things, like fresh vegetables and fruit - everything has to be cooked. You can't be around flowers or plants and you can't eat out. In November I was allowed to go to a restaurant and was able to have a salad. I knew by then that I was improving."
Part of what helped Bunnell remain positive while battling leukemia was her support system. While her parents and boyfriend were able to help her to a certain extent, she discovered the bulk of her support through the Leukemia Lighthouse Connection group on Facebook. Through this group, Bunnell was able to connect with other people with her same diagnosis.
"They helped me get out of the hole I was in because members had all sorts of types of leukemia or blood cancers," she said. "You need support and you need to find someone to talk to because leukemia is a life-changing experience."
Bunnell now wants to use her experiences not just to help other people who have leukemia but also to help raise awareness about what she considers an unknown disease.
"There is not a lot of awareness for blood cancer at all because leukemia is very rare," she said. "The awareness isn't out there. No one really knows about it. I want to help the community in some way to get this known. I've been through hell and back the last year and a half. It is so good to feel where I am now."