At 21, Vancouver woman fights cancer yet again

Liz Rowan, diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, pins hopes on a bone marrow transplant

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

‘Lizstrong fights on,’ bracelets say

Liz Rowan’s family and friends have created awareness bracelets to help defray medical and related expenses.

The rubber bracelets are orange — the color for leukemia awareness — and read “Lizstrong Fights On.” The family is selling the bracelets for $1.

To purchase bracelets, email nicoleymorse@gmai...

You can also follow Liz Rowan through her treatment on her blog.

Liz Rowan was standing in the parking lot of a Portland bar, dressed up for a night out with her friends, when her cellphone rang. Instead of celebrating her 21st birthday with dancing and drinks, Rowan headed to the emergency room.

The bruising she experienced earlier in the week — the bruising that prompted her to visit her doctor for blood tests that morning — wasn't something to ignore. The tests revealed her blood cell counts were low. In a couple of days, Rowan found out just how bad the news was.

She had cancer. Again.

"When the doctor called me the first night, I was definitely scared," Rowan said.

This isn't Rowan's first bout with cancer. Or even her second. Or third.

On April 3 — a week after her 21st birthday and a Columbian story trumpeting her previous cancer victories — Rowan received her fourth cancer diagnosis: Acute myeloid leukemia.

Rowan isn't the only one in the family with a history of battling cancer.

When Rowan was 6 years old, her mother died from breast cancer at age 32. Several years later, her father successfully battled prostate cancer. Then, a teenaged Rowan was diagnosed with bone cancer in her jaw. Three years after that, at age 19, Rowan was diagnosed with two different forms of the disease that took her mother's life.

The two-and-a-half months since Rowan's most recent cancer diagnosis have been a whirlwind of doctor appointments, hospital rooms, blood tests and chemotherapy. On April 14, Rowan began her first chemotherapy treatment. She was hospitalized for 30 days. Earlier this month, she underwent her second weeklong treatment. The chemo was accompanied by fever, chills and a feeling of overall crumminess.

And in two weeks, Rowan will once again be in the hospital. This time for more chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.

After the transplant, Rowan will "live in a bubble" for three months as she takes anti-rejection medications. Her immune system will be broken down by the chemotherapy and transplant, making her particularly susceptible to illnesses.

Rowan's sister and roommate, Julia, will become her caregiver after the transplant.

"I'm honestly terrified," the Vancouver woman said. "I'm most nervous about the transplant because if I reject it, the survival rate is tougher."

And this battle with cancer may not even be her last.

After her bone cancer diagnosis, Rowan underwent genetic testing. Her dad and stepmother learned their then-16-year-old daughter had a rare genetic disorder called Li-Fraumeni syndrome.

People with Li-Fraumeni syndrome have a mutated gene, a tumor suppressor gene, that would normally help control the growth and division of cells. Mutations in the gene allow cells to divide uncontrolled and form tumors, according to the National Institutes of Health.

People with Li-Fraumeni syndrome have a greatly increased risk of developing several types of cancer, including breast cancer, osteosarcoma (a form of bone cancer), brain tumors and leukemias, according to the NIH.

While Rowan has the syndrome, her twin sister, Julia, does not. Rowan's parents didn't tell her about the genetic disorder until she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 19.

There's no way of telling whether Rowan will face another cancer diagnosis.

"I feel like people are getting tired of it, like, 'Oh, Liz has cancer again,'" Rowan said. "I know I'm getting tired of it."

"I'm ready to be healthy again," she added, "for more than a year this time."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.