Last year, she got a new heart. Now she has cancer, and she’s focused on the fight

Amanda Saunders recently finished up her first round of cancer treatment after being diagnosed with a form of lymphoma related to her heart transplant. (Submitted by Amanda Saunders)

Amanda Saunders had her new heart for only a few months before she was battling another life-threatening illness.

This time, Saunders has cancer, a form of lymphoma — called post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder — that is a direct result of her heart transplant last year.

“My initial thought was, here we go again,” said Saunders, 23, describing how she reacted when she got the diagnosis.

“But I also thought at the same time, let’s kick cancer’s butt.”

Puzzling symptoms

The Grand Falls-Windsor woman had her life turned upside down in 2018 when she first became ill and was told she needed a heart transplant.

She had to leave her psychology studies at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University, in Corner Brook. She spent time in Ottawa waiting for a suitable donor heart to become available.

Amanda Saunders received a heart transplant at the Ottawa Heart Institute in January 2019. (Submitted by Amanda Saunders)

After her transplant surgery in January 2019, she recovered and was able to resume her studies briefly before getting sick again last fall. 

Saunders said her most recent health troubles started with gastrointestinal infections in September.

“I was dealing with searing abdominal pain that would never go away. I was feeling a lot of fatigue,” she said.

“I just wasn’t well, just not myself again, with my brand new heart.”

Scary diagnosis

Saunders was still in close contact with the Ottawa Heart Institute where she had had her transplant just months before.

She was re-admitted there in December and underwent many tests before being diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus, the same virus that can cause infectious mononucleosis.

In Saunders’s case, due to her suppressed immune system as a result of anti-rejection drugs, the virus attacked her bloodstream, liver and gastrointestinal tract. She was treated and released to go home to Newfoundland and Labrador.

But she got a call in March, just two days before her 23rd birthday, saying that she needed to get back to Ottawa immediately because something had shown up in her test results.

“I was given the scary diagnosis,” she said. “As a result of the Epstein-Barr virus, I now have cancer.”

Up for the fight

Saunders said that facing the second major health battle of her young life was overwhelming at first.

She recalls how she reacted when she got the news from her transplant cardiologist:  “I looked at her square in the face and I said, ‘I’m scared. I’m worried. I’ve never heard of this before.'”

Doctors assured Saunders that the cancer had been detected early and that there were treatment options open to her.

So far, she’s had four intravenous infusions of a drug called Rituxan, which is a targeted therapy that attacks the cancer cells in Saunders’ body.

The treatments initially left her feeling extremely fatigued, with cold symptoms, and a reduced appetite.

My heart did a great job. I knew it would pull through.– Amanda Saunders

Another complicating factor is that the anti-rejection drugs Saunders must take can speed the growth of cancer, so the dosage of those drugs was lowered as much as it could be without running the risk of rejection.

Saunders said that she’s getting her cancer treatment in Ottawa so the transplant team can monitor her closely for signs of rejection.

So far, it’s been going well.

“My heart did a great job. I knew it would pull through,” she said. “This heart is very, very strong, and it’s a fighter.”

What keeps her going

Saunders said she’ll know more about her health situation after her next PET scan in June. She said the results will determine if she’ll need more drug treatments or possibly even chemotherapy. But she’s hopeful that the scans will show that she’s actually beaten cancer.

“After I’ve been deemed as cancer-free, I’m hoping to go home to Newfoundland and have a nice, relaxing summer, away from hospitals for a little while.”

She’s looking forward to as much time with friends and family as she can find a way to have in light of COVID-19 restrictions.

Saunders is yearning for time with her new dog, Echo, which she got last year after her heart transplant.

Amanda Saunders is looking forward to is spending more time with her new dog, Echo, which she got after her transplant last year. (Submitted by Amanda Saunders)

Saunders is hopeful a good report from her tests in June will also mean she can return to her post-secondary studies.

“I hope to get back to school again in September, and just really get back to where I was just after my transplant.”

Saunders said she keeps a positive attitude with the help of the medical team in Ottawa, as well as her family and friends.

“My community of Grand Falls-Windsor back home has been equally as amazing as well,” she said.

“Like I always say, from the bottom of my new heart, I thank everybody who’s been following this part of my journey and just rooting for me, and that’s really what gets me through.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Last year, she got a new heart. Now she has cancer, and she’s focused on the fight

Aggregated from: CBC | Newfoundland and Labrador News

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