When Cecilia Perez got diagnosed with the very rare condition, aplastic anemia, she was understandably stressed and wondered where to go to get treatment. She soon realized the state of the art comprehensive cancer center, Community Cancer Institute, was right in her backyard.
When Cecilia first met Dr. Haifaa Abdulhaq, she was very sick. The 27-year old said she had never had health issues before, but one day in April 2020, she went to the hospital with a high fever and body aches.
“I was actually in liver failure, and so I was admitted. They started treating, trying to treat the liver, trying to figure out what’s going on, what’s causing it, then I went into heart failure,” said Cecilia.
She was transported to a hospital in San Francisco and diagnosed with aplastic anemia.
Cecilia continued, “I was like, well who do I see? And the doctor there said, ‘Hey we have a very good oncologist in Fresno, well Clovis, and she specializes in this’.”
Dr. Abdulhaq, who is a hematologist at the Community Cancer Institute, explains, “Aplastic anemia is a bone marrow failure. It results from an immune injury to the stem cells in the bone marrow… low white cell counts, red cell count, and platelets.”
She goes in depth into how Cecilia may have gotten the aplastic anemia.
“It can be either inherited or acquired, and inherited aplastic anemia could be through certain genetic alterations… it can also happen in the setting of viral infections and many viruses can do that… she did have evidence from CMV viral infection at that time… we think that it is a viral exposure that caused this, because all of the workup did not show evidence of auto immune disease. However, I am now in the process of doing some genetic evaluation to see if we have any genetic predisposition,” the doctor added.
Cecilia needed her blood counts to recover. Dr. Abdulhaq said a bone marrow transplant is often recommended for patients with aplastic anemia, but when there is no immediate availability for a donor, she advises patients undergo triple immune therapy.
Dr. Abdulhaq said, “Triple immune therapy is basically a combination of three medications… (05:18) so the combination of these three medications is quite effective… the response rate to this combination is more than 90 percent. It does however require some time, so we have to be patient. And that’s what we did with Cecilia’s case.”
There has already been improvement in Cecilia’s blood count since her treatment. Cecilia said receiving care locally at the Community Cancer Institute has provided her and her family relief through this difficult diagnosis.
“It’s been great. I don’t have to go up north or anything, I don’t have to make that long commute, don’t have to spend too much money on it, parents don’t have to drive up and down, so it’s been awesome,” stated Cecilia.
Dr. Abdulhaq added, “The incidents of aplastic anemia is not more than 10 in a million. It is quite a rare disease and we don’t see a lot of these patients with this condition. It is more common in pediatrics than in adults, and when it happens, patients should be really treated in experienced centers because patients do require a lot of supportive care until the treatments kick in and their counts improve and their immune system is stronger.”
Dr. Abdulhaq said Cecila’s prognosis is positive, and with the triple immune therapy she suspects the chances of relapse to be very low.
“I’m just trying to keep my hope alive and see how my body continues to respond and hopefully move past this and pray that it doesn’t come back,” ended Cecilia.