Stage 4 Cancer Survivor Shares Her Story
Makeda’s Story: Dedicated Physician Illuminates Medical Mystery
For more than six weeks, Makeda was a walking, talking medical mystery.
Makeda didn’t smoke, didn’t have allergies and was living an active, engaged life as a community organizer, wife, and mother of two in Minneapolis. But she was troubled by a chronic cough and fatigue that eventually left her unable to climb a single set of stairs—or cross a parking lot—without resting.
Enter Barbara Leone, MD, a family medicine physician at University of Minnesota Physicians’ Broadway Family Medicine Clinic in north Minneapolis.
Dr. Leone, who sees patients and trains physicians during their residencies at the clinic, says she didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. But to Makeda, Dr. Leone is a hero—the woman whose diligence and attention to detail helped identify stage four cancer before it was too late.
“I love her,” Makeda said. “When I say she saved my life, I’m not exaggerating.”
More Questions than Answers
Makeda’s symptoms began in the second half of 2012. But the seemingly mundane issues worsened quickly. By November, her heart would race after simple tasks and her heavy coughing sometimes led to vomiting. After visits to her previous clinic failed to identify the problem, she came to the Broadway Clinic on Nov. 6 with more questions than answers.
Dr. Leone went to work. Noticing that Makeda had already been treated unsuccessfully for pertussis and had no history of bronchitis or allergies, Dr. Leone checked for tuberculosis and acid reflux. But those tests didn’t pan out, and Dr. Leone ordered a blood test during a follow-up visit on Dec. 10.
“This is supposedly a healthy, 44-year-old woman who can’t take one flight of stairs without shortness of breath,” Dr. Leone said. “That was not normal, it was not adding up.”
Makeda’s blood test results came back just after her second visit. The test showed abnormalities in Makeda’s white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets, Dr. Leone noted.
Also suspecting a possible heart problem, Dr. Leone had Makeda take a stress echocardiogram. A week later, on Dec. 18, the heart test came back. Everything checked out.
Dr. Leone had an “aha moment” when she saw the echocardiogram results.
“I said, ‘Oh wow, this all gels together now,” Dr. Leone said. “[I knew] then this was not this woman’s heart. Something was wrong with her bone marrow.”
Dr. Leone sent a referral for Makeda to see a hematologist or blood specialist. Makeda also went in for a bone marrow biopsy on Christmas Eve 2012. After a battery of tests, she was diagnosed with widespread large B-cell lymphoma.
“Cancer in my mind meant death, and they said ‘stage four.’ I was just stunned,” Makeda said.
Almost immediately, doctors scheduled Makeda for an aggressive chemotherapy regimen. On New Year’s Eve she started six rounds of chemo.
The first treatment hit her like a freight train.
“I really didn’t feel like I was going to make it, it just felt like my life was leaving, like a tire with the air being sucked out of it,” Makeda said.
The chemo made Makeda fatigued, unable to eat certain foods and highly vulnerable to other illnesses. In order to visit, family members were required to wear masks to prevent contagion.
Because UMPhysicians’ Broadway Clinic trains resident physicians in cooperation with North Memorial Hospital, the hospital’s Hubert Humphrey Cancer Center took the lead on Makeda’s treatment following her diagnosis. But Dr. Leone, herself a breast cancer survivor, continued to call and visit Makeda in the hospital to dispense advice and support.
By the second round of chemo, Makeda was 95 percent cancer free. Now, she has a clean bill of health, but must check in every three months for follow-up care.
Makeda believes Dr. Leone’s diligence “set the stage for success”. And her positive presence during chemotherapy, as well as unwavering support from Makeda’s family and friends, kept her afloat during the treatments.
“[That support] is like a lifeline,” Makeda said. “It’s like being in the middle of an ocean and somebody’s throwing you a life preserver. You can’t see the boat or the land, but you know you have to hold onto it.”