Thompson cell-ebrates stem-cell transplant program

By Kristi Nelson, News-Sentinel staff writer
September 16, 2002

In November, Billie Jo Laymon of Middlesboro, Ky., wants to celebrate a year of being cancer-free. For it was in October and November of 2001 that Laymon, who has a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, had the stem-cell transplant at Thompson Cancer Survival Center that she hopes eliminated the cancer for good.

So this month, with about other 60 patients, she'll celebrate Thompson's stem-cell transplant program itself.

The cancer survival center will have a "Stem Cell-ebration 2002" to celebrate the lives of those 60-odd patients, who with their families are invited from 5:30 to 6:30 Thursday, Sept. 19, to the courtyard of the White Avenue facility.

Laymon didn't really know much about stem-cell transplantation, beyond that it was her best option when her cancer returned three years after her initial chemotherapy.

"I did not understand what this was going to entail at all," Laymon said. "When it was explained to me, I thought, 'This is science fiction' - but it actually is a miracle."

Patients may think of stem-cell transplantation that way because for many it's their last chance to cure or control the cancer, said Dr. Rick Grapski, medical director of Thompson's stem-cell transplant program. The treatment, which Thompson has done for five years, is used only when conventional treatments have failed or when it's obvious a patient wouldn't do well with more conventional treatments, he said.

During the procedure, a patient's stem cells - immature cells that grow and divide to become red or white blood cells or platelets - are removed from the patient's bloodstream and frozen outside the body. After the patient receives a very high dose of chemotherapy, the stem cells are thawed and returned to the patient intravenously.

It's necessary to remove the stem cells because the intensive chemotherapy could kill or damage them.

Doctors think the aggressive program offers the best hope for controlling and possibly curing a number of types of cancer, including Hodgkins disease, lymphomas, multiple myeloma and some types of leukemia. Grapski, who has done the procedure for about 10 years, the past five of those at Thompson, said the "majority" of patients have done well with it.

"It's become the standard of care" for some types of cancer, Grapski said.

Breast cancer isn't among them. A series of studies a few years ago showed stem-cell transplantation had no advantage over conventional therapies for breast-cancer patients, Grapski said, so most centers have stopped using the treatment for breast cancer.

After that study, the number of people seeking stem-cell transplants dropped somewhat, he said, but it's now rising again. Thompson is seeing about 20 patients a year; in five years, 72 people have had the procedure there.

Many people who could benefit from the procedure, however, end up going to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville or Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina because they don't know it's available here, Grapski said.

"We're trying to keep people here in East Tennessee for this procedure," he said, adding that "doctors are starting to refer patients and ... patients are starting to hear about us a little more."

Laymon, a retired English teacher with one daughter and two grandsons, made six trips to Knoxville for treatment, in addition to several doctor visits.

"It's really not an imposition to drive that far - and certainly not when you're getting good treatment," she said.

Nor does she mind driving here for the "Cell-ebration."

"I'm looking forward to meeting other people who've been through the same procedure," she said.

Laymon's also eager to tell her own story to anyone who might benefit. She remembers that before she had the stem-cell transplant, she talked to an Oak Ridge woman who had it six months earlier and was returning to work.

"Just knowing that somebody else had survived it and was doing well was encouraging," she said.

For information on Thompson's stem-cell transplant program, call 541-1678.

Kristi Nelson can be reached at 342-6434, or

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