On the afternoon of August 6, 1997, life as Virginia Garner had known it came to a startling end. Following a routine physical, she found herself on the phone with her family physician as he shared with her some disturbing discoveries. Her white count was so high that it was obvious that some type of leukemia was churning away deep inside her body.
Following a series of tests and a bone marrow aspiration,Virginia discovered that she had Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML) and that she could plan on enjoying the next three to five years getting her life in order and enjoying time with her family. In 1997, the prognosis for people diagnosed with CML was bleak and we had yet to enter the days of Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors (TKIs).
Virginia says, “The next year was a whirlwind of activities consisting of debilitating treatment with Interferon and Ara-C, blood tests, and a new concept: physical limitations.” That first year, Virginia injected herself twice a day, dealt with debilitating side effects, had multiple blood transfusions, and tried to carry on with life - all as she watched precious time tick away on the clock. She says she was so weak at times that she would take rest breaks while doing simple tasks like blow-drying her hair. Virginia endured all of these things while teaching English at the high school she loved. Unfortunately, Virginia shares that “By the end of that year, my bone marrow still showed 100% cancerous white blood cells.”
On April 19, 1999, Virginia’s life took a welcomed change of course and for the first time in months, she felt that life was back on track. That day marked the day that she was accepted into a clinical trial at UCLA for a new drug that would prove to bring radical change to her life,and the CML community . Virginia was one of the first people in the world to benefit from the new way of treating CML. The drug brought an entirely new concept into play for those diagnosed with CML and other cancers – it was the first drug specifically “targeted” to a genetic abnormality that caused cancer. Another radical departure from the norm was that it did not require infusions or injections but rather was taken in pill form.
Virginia shares that within two weeks her blood counts were normal and over the next few months her marrow rebounded and only contained a miniscule amount of cancerous leukemia cells. Today her marrow and blood show no detectible disease and she has resumed her daily routine and energetic lifestyle. Virginia says, “I am thankful for the gift of waking up in the morning!” She refers to April 19th as her “REbirthday” and this past spring she celebrated her 11th anniversary of that day.
Today, Virginia and her husband Van spend their days sharing their story, talking with others living with CML, and helping those diagnosed with hematological cancers in any way they can. To date, she and Van have completed 10 marathons and raised over $195,000 for research into blood cancers. Virginia says that each time she crosses the finish line she is reminded of that first year following her diagnosis when she was simply fighting for her life.
Virginia, we celebrate your life and accomplishments and wish you the very best! Thank you for giving of yourself so that others can receive life-changing treatment.