Leukemia and its treatments can take a toll on patients, both physically and emotionally. However, Dr. James Dugan, an oncologist at Novant Health Hematology, a department of Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, said advances in acute leukemia – and specifically new medicines to treat it – are improving disease response and, in turn, quality of life.

Dr. James Dugan
Dr. James Dugan

As part of his care, Dugan typically prescribes a change of outlook for his patients, as well, so they can take on this new part of their life with as much resilience as they can muster.

Jeff Hutchens knows how important that prescription is. A Lexington resident and a patient of Dugan’s, he received his life-changing cancer diagnosis in April. He installs sports equipment for a living and noticed his energy was noticeably down, making it difficult to work.

“I took a break one day and I could feel my heart pounding. Just pounding,” said Hutchens, 54. “I got in my car and went to the hospital.”

Hutchens suspected he was having a heart attack. But after five hours of tests at Novant Health Thomasville Medical Center, he got the news – it was cancer. He was referred to Dugan where he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

Jeffrey Hutchens, a patient of Dugan's, relaxes at home.
Jeffrey Hutchens, a patient of Dugan's, relaxes at home.

“I never imagined it was cancer, but a positive outlook is the key to it all,” Hutchens said. “You hear the word cancer and you know it's not good, but stay positive. If you get down, turn to God. Talk to him all the time because he's the healer."

Mindset is everything

A person’s mindset is something Dugan stresses with every patient. He said fostering an acceptance that life has changed is an important part of the process of moving forward. It is a theme in how he practices and approaches patients.

“Slowly over time, I introduce the idea of this new normal. I tell people, ‘I can make you feel better than you did coming in, but it is unlikely that you're ever going to get back to where you were.’ And I find that patients are always striving and struggling to get back to where they were.” But trying to get there, he said, can actually make things harder. A certain amount of acceptance, he said, can help.

“The pills may make you feel bad, you may be more nauseous, you may have other side effects. This is probably going to stay with you for the rest of your life. I think patients who do best, who seem to have the best attitude, are the patients who come to that realization that they don’t need to get back to where they were to enjoy the rest of their life.”

Dugan said it’s a process and an ongoing discussion as patients go through treatment. Leukemia patients, in particular, can expect long-term side effects such as fatigue, fever, night sweats and weight loss. He encourages patients to stick with it and buy into their therapy.

“I can talk to people all day long about how their disease manifests itself and what they're going to feel like,” Dugan said. “But if they don't buy into that, they're not going to do well because they’re less likely to take their medicine, they're not going to come in for routine checks, and they may even lapse into a depression.”

Another thing leukemia patients should expect is the frequency of appointments. It’s something Hutchens knows firsthand. While his cancer is currently in remission, he’s still undergoing chemotherapy.

"I would usually have been at the beach a couple of times by this time of year,” Hutchens said. “Our family is supposed to leave for a Georgia beach tomorrow, but guess what? It's not happening. I have doctor's appointments, so I can't go. But, you know, there's always next year."

Advances in leukemia

Dugan also noted advances in acute leukemia for patients older than 65.

“The average age of a leukemia patient is 68 and more often than not, patients are not treated because of other underlying health conditions they may have,” Dugan said. “This standard is changing because there are new medicines that improve disease response and quality of life.”

Oftentimes, leukemia is a disease to be managed, not cured, but Dugan said attitude and acceptance can go a long way.

“If the mind can't wrap itself around this new diagnosis, it doesn't matter what we do. The body likely won’t do very well. So, I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to do, but if we can help the person try to accept the fact that this disease is going to affect them for the rest of their lives, it helps.”

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