For many of us, cancer was not considered an appropriate conversational topic for many years, and that was also the case for Cleghorn resident Karla Prunty. A series of family health concerns over the last 11 years, however, have forced Karla and her family to become extremely aware of many of the varieties of 'the big C' that exist, and to become proactive in supporting the all-important work of the American Cancer Society in the search for a cure for cancer.
Cancer, its treatment and the search for a cure has become a big part of the lives of Karla, her mother, Sandi Schlenger of Meriden, Karla's children, Nicole, Rebecca and Tyler. Not that they really wanted it to be so, but "it is what it is," as the saying goes. It all started back in 1997, when Karla and her sister were tested to see if they carried a very rare genetic mutation, which their father carried. A gene mutation is a permanent change in the DNA sequence that makes up a gene. Mutations range in size from a single DNA building block (DNA base) to a large segment of a chromosome.
Gene mutations can be inherited from a parent or acquired during a person's lifetime. Mutations that are passed from parent to child are called hereditary mutations or germ-line mutations (because they are present in the egg and sperm cells, which are also called germ cells). This type of mutation is present throughout a person's life in virtually every cell in the body. The genetic mutation for which Karla and her sister were tested is called familial adenomatous polyposis, or FAP. The presence of this gene can lead to a disease of the large intestine that is marked by the formation, especially in the colon and rectum, of numerous adenomatous polyps, which typically become malignant if left untreated, and that is inherited as an autosomal dominant trait. Testing for the FAP gene involves more than a blood or urine test. The patient must basically undergo a procedure similar to a colonoscopy. Karla's testing showed that she did carry the gene and that her sister did not. She was told that she had a 50-50 chance of passing the rare gene on, and Karla underwent the removal of her colon at the Mayo Clinic to prevent the occurrence of colon cancer. Three years later, at the age of 36, Karla learned that she had breast cancer, though there was no family history of that type of cancer. She underwent chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and ultimately a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Regular check-ups at the Siouxland Cancer Center followed, along with yearly chest x-rays, and today Karla remains cancer-free.
Having become much more aware of cancer and its ramifications, Karla had her children get tested for FAP. Though her son Tyler, now 16, does not carry the gene, her daughters Nicole, now 23 and Rebecca, now 21, do, and Nicole was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2003 and Rebecca in 2005. Both girls have had a section of their colons removed by a specialist in Omaha, and continue to see him every six months for the removal of pre-cancerous polyps. Neither young woman is married at this point, but their hope is that continued research will lead to a cure and make the decision on whether or not to have children.
Karla's mother, Sandi Schlenger, was suffering from back pain a couple of years ago, and when she had it checked out, she discovered that she had multiple myeloma - bone marrow cancer. Sandi was able to receive chemotherapy at the Cherokee Regional Medical Center, and she took these treatments for several months, when her oncologist suggested the possibility of her receiving a stem cell transplant to prevent the cancer from coming back - to "put it at rest," as the doctor put it. Sandi went to Omaha to learn more about the process of stem cell transplant, then asked for a few more days to make the important decision. Time was of the essence, because transplants are not performed on patients over the age of 70. Sandi was 68, so her "window of opportunity" was getting narrower. Patients over the age of 45 are not considered good risks for a "matching" transplant from a donor, so that also narrowed Sandi's options. If she was going to go through a transplant, it would have to be a transplant from her own cells, and it would have to be done pretty soon.
In the transplant process, stem cells are removed from the patient, then frozen. A short time later, the cells are placed in hot water to thaw quickly, and they are then transplanted into the patient by intravenous means. The procedure needs to be done in a very timely and precise manner.
In August 2010, the day after she made the big decision to go ahead with the transplant, Sandi Schlenger had her stem cells "harvested" at the Lied Transplant Center at Omaha's University of Nebraska Medical Center, and was very fortunate that all of her needed cells were harvested in a single session - something that doesn't always happen. In fact, they were even able to harvest more than they needed, so the extra cells were frozen in case the need should ever arise for another transplant. The next day, Sandi received her transplant, and she will soon celebrate the one year anniversary of her cancer being "at rest." She will have to take a new medication (Zometa), a cure for bone cancer, for the remainder of her life, and must also go to Omaha for regular checkups, but Sandi says these things are a small price to pay for the restoration of her health. As for her advice to other cancer survivors, Sandi says, "You just go forward" (with your life).
The members of this family are, not surprisingly, all avid supporters of the American Cancer Society and regular participants in the annual Relay for Life, which this year is scheduled to take place at Koser Spring Lake Park on Friday August 5.
Karla Prunty says that she has seen so many new discoveries through cancer research since she first came into contact with the disease 14 years ago that she feels it is vitally important to continue funding research. While there are several agencies who have cancer funding drives, Karla says that the American Cancer Society, "the one with the red sword" as its symbol, is the one she stands behind. The ACS sponsors the Relay for Life, and all of their funds go back into research for a cure.
Karla and her family members strongly urge everyone to become proactive in the fight against cancer - "there's a wealth of information out there," she says. So join the network of cancer volunteers - and you don't have to wait until cancer hits "close to home" to join the fight.