BY STEVE WATKINS
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
Five days before Christmas, Angie McCormick’s phone rang. It was 8 a.m. and she was home making cookies for an office party, while her kids slept in. It was her oncologist’s office calling—to tell her to go to the ER immediately.
The doctor’s office had just gotten the results back from a blood draw the day before. McCormick’s white blood cell count was 176,000; normal is at most 11,000.
McCormick had been tired lately, and bruising easily, but otherwise feeling great. After a bout with thyroid cancer in 2009, she’d committed to an intense routine of exercise and vegan eating. She was in the best shape of her life.
But a few hours after the doctor’s office called, a second blood draw at the ER confirmed the dangerously elevated white blood cell count, which can be a sign of cancer.
McCormick’s oncologist, Dr. Charles Maurer, came in almost immediately to do a bone marrow biopsy, an extremely painful procedure made worse due to the density of McCormick’s bones from months of weight-lifting and running.
Maurer had the results within hours: chronic myeloid leukemia. Phase 2: Accelerated. That explained the easy bruising and fatigue McCormick had recently been experiencing.
The good news: The leukemia was not yet in the advanced blast phase, which would make it tough to treat. The bad news: Aggressive treatment would be required to try to get it into Phase 1 remission and keep it there.
McCormick was stunned. The 34-year-old Fredericksburg woman had already beaten cancer once, almost three years before. She had taken control of her life since then, swearing off junk food and binge eating and shifting herself and her family over to a strict vegan diet. And not just any vegan diet, either, but one rich with foods proven to fight and ward off cancers.
“It’s a cliché, but when I got cancer the first time it was a wake-up call,” said McCormick, a call center manager for a national polling firm. “I ate all the wrong foods, and for the wrong reasons. I was a compulsive overeater. I’d given the cancer everything it needed to succeed.”
After changing her diet, McCormick liked how she felt—not only physically, but emotionally. But just changing her diet, she decided, wasn’t enough. Though a lifelong hater of exercise, she took up distance running at the urging of a co-worker.
“At first I just didn’t want to be fat anymore,” she said. “But once I got started, I wanted to keep going.”
After a year of mostly just running, she started taking exercise classes and lifting weights. Last summer she began working with Chris Innocenti, a personal trainer at the Massad Branch of the YMCA. She also joined his Boot Camp and was soon devoting at least nine hours a week to exercise.
In two years’ time McCormick lost 103 lbs., dropping from 249 to a strong, fit 146. She was healthy and happy and thinking about her next big challenge. Maybe graduate school. Maybe a marathon.
Instead, just a few days before Christmas, she found herself lying in the hospital, her body swelling from edema, a side effect of Gleevec, the first drug therapy she was put on for leukemia.
‘IT’S LITERALLY HELPING ME’
Gleevec and other drug therapies, developed in recent years, are designed to combat the bone marrow’s excessive production of unformed cells called blasts, or leukemia cells. These cells grow quickly and crowd out normal red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets the body needs.
Leukemia can be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including certain viruses; exposure to Benzene or petrochemicals; or even some chemotherapy agents used to treat previous cancers.
Whatever the reason for her leukemia, McCormick knew she had not come so far for everything to go back to the way it was before.
“I can’t describe what a huge thing that was for me to lose a hundred pounds and beat thyroid cancer,” she said. “It was about overcoming an entire lifetime of being disappointed in myself. Never feeling good about myself. Never liking how I looked. Never feeling happy or successful.”
McCormick got out of the hospital on Saturday, Dec. 23. And at 9 a.m. the next morning, she showed up at the Y parking lot with the other hardcore Boot Campers, ready to lift a few tractor tires.
“I did a whole lot of not much,” she recalled.
“Not much” included an intense series of squats, extended wall sits and a forward sled drag, among other challenges. Not bad for someone who couldn’t even sit down because of the biopsy, and who still wore her hospital bracelet, just in case.
McCormick hasn’t let up much since.
“I’m not about to stop working out,” she said. “It’s another weapon in the arsenal. It’s literally helping me fight the cancer. Research has clearly shown that it boosts your immune system. And it’s another opportunity for me to prove to myself that I can do things I didn’t think I could do.”
Two weeks after she got out of the hospital, McCormick was doing just about everything she’d been doing before: pushups, kettle-bell swings, sled pulls, sledge-hammering and working with her fellow Boot Campers to flip a 666-pound tractor tire they call “Buttercup.”
By Jan. 9, McCormick, who had gained 22 lbs. the first week after starting her treatment, was back to her pre-diagnosis weight.
Dr. Maurer, her oncologist, was happy she was keeping her weight down—something he told her he wished more of his patients could do, since it made the drug therapy much easier to manage.
“Because [McCormick] is so well-conditioned, there is a much higher likelihood of responding well to treatment, and a much lower risk of complications from the drug therapy,” he said.
McCormick hasn’t had to have any blood transfusions. Her white blood cell count has stayed down. There’s no talk about a bone marrow transplant.
And, in what a surprised Maurer told her was “remarkably fast progress,” McCormick said her leukemia has already gone into first-level remission.
The goal, with drug therapies, is to achieve that level in three months. McCormick did it in three weeks. The goal now is to continue progressing into deeper remission—chronic, but asymptomatic and no longer spreading.
“She’ll be on a regimented drug program for the rest of her life, which can induce a complete, sustained remission,” Maurer said. “The challenge now is what we call ‘Survivorship Care.’ Once you’ve finished treatment, there is more and more data showing the importance of staying fit, exactly as she has done, which will help in preventing a recurrence.”
McCormick celebrated her first-level remission by buying a new pink and blue T–shirt with the words “Suck it up, Buttercup” emblazoned on the front.
She wore it the next day to Boot Camp.
SIDEBAR: CANCER PATIENT A BELIEVER IN POWER OF EXERCISE, GOOD DIET
Angie McCormick’s workouts are holistic, focusing on strength, stamina and diet. Her sessions with personal trainer Chris Innocenti emphasize functional fitness exercises with such exotic names as the Bulgarian Split Squat, Sumo Dead Lift and Blast Strap Row.
She has recently added yoga once or twice a week to her workout schedule. She also has begun run-ning again, taking spinning classes and lifting weights.
She continues to follow a mostly vegan diet, with a few modifications to increase her protein level and combat the anemia that comes with her leukemia. McCormick remains a steadfast believer in the importance of exercise and diet to combat illnesses—especially cancer.
There’s reason for her to believe.
“Only 5 to 10 percent of all cancer cases can be attributed to genetic defects, whereas the remaining 90 to 95 percent have their roots in the environment and lifestyle,” a team of researchers wrote in a recent article published by the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Biochemical Information.
“The evidence indicates that of all cancer-related deaths, almost 25 to 30 percent are due to tobacco, as many as 30 to 35 percent are linked to diet, about 15 to 20 percent are due to infections, and the remaining percentage are due to other factors like radiation, stress, physical activity, environmental pollutants, etc.”
McCormick said much the same thing in a Facebook message for her friends last spring about her thyroid cancer, adding her own call to action:
“Three years ago at this time, they were telling me there was an excellent 5-year survival rate, and I thought, ‘In 5 years, [my son] Liam will be 7 and [my daughter] Lara will be 13. That’s not enough time.’ I resolved to do anything I could to help fight it, and I did. So here is my annual soapbox statement:
“You are not ‘too young’ to get cancer, or heart disease, or Type 2 diabetes. … So wake up and stop making excuses. … Stop eating crap. Get some exercise. … Cancer is preventable, up to 95 percent of the time. Wrap your head around that, and then get moving.”
Chronic myeloid leukemia, the kind that Fredericksburg resident Angie McCormick has, is “a type of cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. It then moves into the blood and can spread to other parts of the body,” the American Cancer Society says.
The leukemia cells tend to build up over time in CML patients, but CML can “change into a fast-growing, acute leukemia that invades almost any organ in the body,” the society says.
CML is one of four main types of leukemia. Learn more at cancer.org/cancer.