Leukemia Researcher Battling Leukemia Inspires Attendees of Annual Cancer Survivorship Conference

Lukas Wartman Survivorship


The cancer patients and caregivers who attended the recent Cancer Survivorship Conference hosted by JamesCare for Life learned all about this important topic. And the inspiring lesson came from Lukas Wartman, MD, a cancer doctor/researcher at the McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis and the keynote speaker at the event.

Dr. Wartman was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2003. He was in his fourth year of medical school at the time.

ALL is one of the most common forms of childhood leukemia, and the cure rate is about 90 percent, Dr. Wartman said. “Adults with ALL don’t do so well, the survival rate is about 40 percent and some sub-groups do even worse.”

Dr. Wartman has had two relapses and two stem cell transplants, and said he is alive due to the advances made in research, especially in genomic testing and targeted treatment. He is in remission from his ALL, but suffers from a long list of debilitating side effects from the second stem cell transplant. He has Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD) and, as his body’s immune system battles the “foreign” stem cells, he has problems with his bones and muscles, issues walking, has terrible rashes and dry patches on his skin, will soon need hip-replacement surgery and … well, the list goes on and on and seems to be getting longer.

And yet, Dr. Wartman remains optimistic.

“It keeps getting worse and worse, and that’s a sad reality I have to face,” he said, speaking in a soft, yet determined voice. It was evident the trip from St. Louis to The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) was an exhausting ordeal. But still, Dr. Wartman came to Columbus to deliver his message of hope, inspire his fellow cancer survivors and reinforce the need for even more cancer research.

“I do remain hopeful, I do remain optimistic,” he continued. “Because I do consider myself lucky to have lived this long and there are so many parts of my life I appreciate.” The list includes taking care of leukemia patients. “That gives me a strong sense of satisfaction … I focus on being the best doctor I can.”

In addition to Dr. Wartman, the conference included poster presentations by several OSUCCC – James researchers on their work, as well as sessions on mindfulness, a technique to help cancer patients reduce stress and anxiety as they proceed along their cancer journey. As the number of people living with cancer increases (it is expected to reach 19 million by 2024, according to the National Cancer Institute) so does the amount of research and treatment options at the OSUCCC – James.

Many cancer patients have sleep issues, especially when they are in the hospital and receiving treatment, said Kelly Tomlinson-Pinkham, MS, RN at the OSUCCC – James. The topic of her research, “The Effect of Aromatherapy on Insomnia and Other Common Cancer Patients Symptoms,” indicates essential oils such as lavender and chamomile help cancer patients sleep better.

The study used the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, Tomlinson-Pinkham said, adding the scale runs from 15 (the worst sleep) to 5 (the best sleep). Prior to the use of aromatherapy, the patients in the study had an average score of 13.5. “Those taking the placebo went to 13.2, which is basically the same,” Tomlinson-Pinkham said. “Those on aromatherapy went down to 10.0.”

Better sleep reduces depression and the constant feeling of being tired, and helps patients better tolerate their treatment, Tomlinson-Pinkham said.

Having a healthy sexual relationship with their spouse “is an important quality of life issue for women who are cancer survivors,” said Liz Arthur, MS, RN and a PhD candidate in Ohio State’s College of Nursing. The topic of her PhD research is: “Self-Efficacy to Renegotiate Sex and Intimacy in Women Treated for Cancer: An Instrument Development Study.”

This can be a difficult topic for many women to talk to their spouses and doctors about, but “there are nine million women living with cancer in the United States,” Arthur said. “And many of them have had changes in their bodies, scars from radiation, from a mastectomy, and many are dealing with depression and anxiety.”

Arthur’s research is a survey of female cancer patients to gather information and help determine the extent of the problem. The survey asks women about how comfortable they are talking to their husbands about sexual issues and “the changes in their body images, feelings of guilt or rejection,” she said, adding this is one of the first steps in helping women deal with the issue. “There’s not a lot of research in this field. There are 24 FDA-approved drugs to help men with sexual dysfunction and one (Addyi) for women.”

Mindfulness is an increasingly more common technique people use to deal with the stress, anxiety and hustle and bustle of daily life. These issues are even more of a concern for cancer patients and mindfulness, gentle yoga, guided meditation and aromatherapy are becoming more common in healthcare settings and at the OSUCCC – James.

Mindfulness is “simply a way to train your attention,” said Daron Larson, a mindful awareness coach. It’s the learned ability to be more present and in the moment and reduce the outside distractions and thoughts that can be overwhelming at times.

For example, Larson had conference participants go outside and walk. Slowly. And then even more slowly. And concentrate on each step, how their feet and legs moved up and down and forward. “It’s doing something familiar, something we do automatically, and slowing it down to observe ourselves doing it,” he explained as everyone walked.

Larson also used some mindfulness exercises to discuss and help the conference participants deal with insomnia.

Erin Holley, MS, RD, LD, an outpatient clinical dietician at the OSUCCC – James talked about mindful eating. It involves being more aware of your eating habits, eating slower to better enjoy and savor the sensations and flavors, and thinking about “the thoughts and emotions you have about food.”

Mindful eating leads to better food choices and reduces over eating. Holley called it “mindful eating rather than mindless eating.”

Larson then led an exercise in which all the attendees were given a piece of chocolate.

He had everyone smell the chocolate first, think about what they were about to eat, take a small bite and chew slowly and savor the wonderfulness of chocolate.

“You don’t have to eat an entire meal like this,” he said. “It can be part of a meal.”

Mindfulness is becoming a more accepted practice.

“Many people still don’t know about it and might think it’s a little weird,” Larson told the conference attendees, comparing it to the growth of running and jogging in the 1970s and 1980s. “People thought that was strange, and now millions are doing it. The same thing is happening with mindfulness.”