Eight years ago, D’Ann Schaefer was a happy, active nursing student and fitness instructor planning her future. Her only complaint was mild back pain that she had been experiencing for about a year. She assumed it was the result of an injury.
In early 2012, D’Ann’s back broke and she collapsed. A tumor had infiltrated her vertebrae. Surgeons in a different health network removed the tumor and diagnosed her with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer. When she did not respond to the commonly used targeted therapy they prescribed, she was told her prognosis was not promising. In fact, her aggressive form of multiple myeloma was progressing. At 22, she was nearly 50 years younger than the average multiple myeloma patient, and her disease was considered high risk.
Even though she was overwhelmed with a broken back and gloomy statistics, D’Ann remained optimistic and sought another opinion. She turned to the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Network, meeting with Parameswaran Hari, MD, hematologist/oncologist and MCW faculty member.
“I’m so glad I did because Dr. Hari gave me hope,” she said. “He told me, ‘I’m not going for two years, I’m trying to give you 50 years.’ I decided to go with his plan.”
New Treatments, New Hope
Dr. Hari determined D’Ann’s best option for long-term survival was to have two stem cell transplants — autologous (with her own cells) and allogeneic (with donor cells). D’Ann’s sister, Danelle, was the donor for her allogeneic transplant. Froedtert & MCW Froedtert Hospital is one of a small number of hospitals that use allogeneic transplants to treat multiple myeloma. D’Ann had two rounds of inpatient chemotherapy to prepare for the transplants.
“People come from all over the world to be treated here,” Dr. Hari said. “We are internationally known for treating blood cancers, including rare and aggressive cancers, through our Leukemia, Lymphoma and Myeloma Program. We are also research leaders in blood and marrow transplants and cellular therapies. Our Blood and Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapy Program has ranked high in nationally compared patient survival rates for the past five years — one of only five centers in the country to do so.”
D’Ann was in remission after her allogeneic transplant in June 2013. However, a biopsy in August 2019 showed an area of concern in her hip. Dr. Hari referred her to Hina Saeed, MD, a radiation oncologist and MCW faculty member.
Dr. Saeed ordered a PET scan to look for multiple myeloma throughout D’Ann’s body, and the results showed two tiny lesions — in her hip and shoulder. Given D’Ann’s age and her positive response to prior treatment, Dr. Saeed recommended treating the lesions with the intent to cure, rather than simply managing symptoms or pain, which would be a palliative option. While palliative treatment isn’t intended to cure cancer, it can be used to enhance a person’s comfort and reduce stress.
“Instead of giving 10 radiation therapy treatments to each spot as we would for palliative treatments, D’Ann had 25 treatments,” Dr. Saeed said. “Because D’Ann’s disease was contained and the lesions were very small, a curative intent made sense.”
After D’Ann received radiation therapy, Dr. Hari ran a highly sensitive test on her bone marrow that looks for one multiple myeloma cell in a million. No disease was detectable.
Convenient, Compassionate Care
A resident of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, D’Ann was relieved she could receive radiation therapy at the Froedtert & MCW Cancer Center at Drexel Town Square Health Center in Oak Creek.
“It was a huge blessing to receive radiation therapy close to home,” D’Ann said. She also appreciated the Froedtert & MCW Small Stones Wellness Center at the Cancer Center in Oak Creek, particularly the massage therapy that provided relaxation and comfort.
Today, D’Ann is enjoying remission and living her life to the fullest. In December 2017, she and her husband, Pat, had twin boys through a surrogate, and they keep her busy. She also owns a photography business specializing in wedding photography.
“Cancer certainly hasn’t kept her down,” Dr. Hari said.
D’Ann credits faith, family and her care team for helping her survive. “My faith got me through some really dark times,” she said. “And family was so important. My husband and I were dating when I was diagnosed, and he stood by me through it all.
“Everyone I met throughout treatment was amazing. Dr. Hari saved my life, and Dr. Saeed is kind, caring and full of compassion. I truly believe I have the two best doctors around.”