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Cure Rate for Leukemia Increases : Medical Advances Provide Victims New Lease on Life

June 11, 1985|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

As the '80s began, Lynda Appling was living the life of her dreams: She was an airline flight attendant whose work took her to some of the nation's most glamorous destinations; she owned a home in Garden Grove, skied weekly in the winter and led an active social life. "I was independent and free," Appling, who is single, recalls wistfully.

Then, in the winter of 1982, Appling's world collapsed. Chronically fatigued and itching so much she couldn't wear her flight attendant uniform, Appling was forced to give up her job. Her complexion took on a grayish-green tone, and she lost so much weight that her family and friends thought she was wasting away.

"You've got some kind of cancer," a doctor informed Appling following months of physical exams and laboratory tests. Subsequent tests showed that Appling was in the last stages of Hodgkin's disease, a potentially fatal cancer related to leukemia that attacks lymphatic tissues.

Like Death Sentence

To Appling, then 35, this diagnosis sounded like a death sentence. As recently as a decade ago, her chances for survival would have been slim, cancer specialists say. But now, thanks to advances in treatment resulting from research largely funded by the Leukemia Society of America, patients such as Appling are receiving a new lease on life.

"Today, many leukemia patients are cured, whereas 10 years ago there were (few survivors)," says Joe Petritsch, president of the Tri-County chapter of the Leukemia Society of America. From its Tustin headquarters, the chapter serves Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties and the state of Nevada.

Yet, Petritsch cautions, "For every patient cured, there is still one that dies. We are closing in on a killer, but our commitment must persevere until leukemia has been completely eradicated."

Dr. Kenneth B. McCredie, the national Leukemia Society's vice president for medical and scientific affairs, said: "Until recently, every real-life leukemia story ended sadly. Leukemia was a disease without hope, untreatable and incurable.

"The only question that mattered was whether the patient had the acute type, which generally killed most patients within a few months, or the chronic form, which could let the patient linger a year or two," McCredie said in a telephone interview from Houston. He is a professor of medicine at the University of Texas System Cancer Center at the M.D. Anderson Hospital there.

Today, that gloomy prognosis has changed. Leukemia and related diseases such as Hodgkin's are among the types of cancer that have shown the greatest gains in cure rates, according to a recent National Cancer Institute report.

Survival Rate Jumps

The five-year survival rate for children with acute lymphocytic leukemia--the most frequently occurring leukemia in children--has jumped from 4% in 1963 to 65% today, according to a National Cancer Institute report.

For all forms of leukemia, the survival rate for children has increased dramatically. In the past 15 years, more than 12,000 children had survived five years, children who would not have lived if they'd been afflicted with the disease in the 1950s, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

At major treatment centers, adult survival rates are nearing those for children, according to the Leukemia Society. This development is particularly welcome to leukemia specialists, who note that although leukemia often is considered a childhood disease, it afflicts eight times as many adults as children. Indeed, more than half of all cases of leukemia occur in persons over age 60.

With a cure rate approaching 90%, Hodgkin's disease is now one of the most treatable forms of cancer, a fact the Leukemia Society credits to improved chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

McCredie said much of this new hope for leukemia victims is due to the work of the Tri-County chapter and the other 56 chapters of the Leukemia Society of America, which is headquartered in New York.

Since its founding in 1949, the national Leukemia Society has raised more than $32 million for research seeking a cure for leukemia. The organization also sponsors patient financial assistance programs, professional education, public education and community service projects, according to Tri-County's Petritsch.

This year, the national Leukemia Society allocated more than $4.7 million towards its research program, which Petritsch said was underwritten in part by a $121,000 grant from the Tri-County chapter.

40,000 to Die

This research has enabled specialists to learn much about leukemia, lymphomas (of which Hodgkin's disease is the major form) and multiple myeloma. These are malignant diseases that doctors say affect the blood-forming and infection-fighting tissues and organs--mainly the bone marrow, lymph nodes and spleen.

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