When Dennis and Donna Klein’s 14-year-old daughter, Karma, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma (a soft tissue cancer) in the back of her neck, they were, understandably, very scared. Dennis had lost a brother, at a young age, to cancer and already knew first-hand how the disease can affect a family. But their fears were made more manageable by the treatment advancements and quality of care their daughter received in Fort McMurray, and at the Cross Cancer Institute and Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton.
“It changes everybody’s life,” says Donna. “Our other three daughters worried about their sister and experienced all of that stress, too.” Based in Fort McMurray at that time, the Kleins travelled to Edmonton for much of Karma’s treatment.
“She had a very good surgeon in Fort McMurray, and he referred Karma to one of the best orthopedic surgeons in Alberta who operated in the Stollery Children’s Hospital at the University of Alberta. She went on to have an aggressive chemotherapy protocol,” says Dennis.
He attributes G-CSF, a now-common drug that had been in use for less than a decade at the time of Karma’s diagnosis in 1993, to her ability to maintain her chemotherapy schedule and overcome cancer. G-CSF hastens the increase of a patient’s white blood cell count, which gets depleted during chemotherapy. This, in turn, helps the patient resist infections and be better able to maintain the treatment protocol.
“It was very, very fortunate that she got to use that drug,” says Dennis. “To me, it was a breakthrough drug. Without it, I’m not sure how fast she would have recovered.”
Dennis and Donna were grateful that Karma was able to receive some of her weekly chemo treatments at a satellite clinic in the Fort McMurray Regional Hospital. This reduced the travel to Edmonton, plus maintained a more normal family life and school schedule, without compromising her treatment. By 1994, Karma was in recovery, and the Kleins, buoyed by the support their daughter received during her cancer journey, were inspired to make a donation to the Alberta Cancer Foundation.
“She had such good care,” says Dennis, “and we wanted to help ensure others could get that level of care and treatment, as well.”
In 1996, just two years after Karma’s recovery, Donna began her own journey as a patient after she received news she had breast cancer. “I had the same good surgeon in Fort McMurray and caring doctors, nurses and staff at the Cross Cancer Institute; and I survived. But then, much to my surprise, I was diagnosed with uveal melanoma in 2012,” Donna says. Uveal melanoma, a form of eye cancer, is rare and was previously treated by removal of the affected eye. Just eight months prior to Donna’s uveal melanoma diagnosis, Dr. Ezekiel Weis, with the assistance of the Alberta Cancer Foundation, had started an ocular brachytherapy clinic — treating these cancers with radioactive implants — at the Cross Cancer Institute. Following brachytherapy treatment, the biopsy result indicated that Donna’s uveal melanoma was the aggressive class. Dr. Weis suggested participation in a clinical trial, as there was no effective adjuvant drug treatment available.
“When we saw oncologist Dr. Michael Smylie at the Cross, he told us that immunotherapy treatment had produced some encouraging remissions in cutaneous melanoma patients, but fewer clinical trials had been done for uveal melanoma,” Dennis says. Smylie was also supportive of the clinical trial option, a method by which adjuvant treatments are proven effective prior to general acceptance.
Donna decided to proceed with a clinical trial using the immunotherapy drug ipilimumab. She has survived six years, which is beating the odds for her disease, and has useful vision in her affected eye.
“We’re just so fortunate to have doctors like Weis and Smylie here in Alberta,” Donna says. “If treatment hadn’t been available in the brachytherapy clinic at the Cross, I would have had to travel to Toronto or Philadelphia.”
After having seen and experienced different, always-changing technologies and cancer treatments over 20 years, the Kleins made a commitment to further their financial support for the Alberta Cancer Foundation.
“In all areas, from technology to training, cancer treatment has changed to such a high degree,” Dennis says. “We wanted to help cancer specialists like Dr. Weis and Dr. Smylie assist more people like ourselves. When we talk about helping the Alberta Cancer Foundation, we’re looking for them to support initiatives like the brachytherapy clinic (it’s one of only two in Canada), as well as clinical trials and immunotherapy research. We know they’re making great progress and we want to see them continue.”
Today, both Donna and Karma are healthy and thriving. Donna is retired and loves tending a large perennial garden on an acreage near Edmonton, plus seeing her 10 grandchildren whenever possible. Karma is a mother of five and a practicing doctor who supervises the cancer clinic in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
The Kleins are hopeful that other Albertans facing cancer will be able to have a treatment experience similar to those of Donna and Karma, where patients feel cared for, make a full recovery, and are able to lead happy and fulfilling lives.
“We just need to keep providing that hope and supporting that progress,” Donna says. “Things are changing for the better. It’s reassuring that when you get a diagnosis there are many skilled and dedicated people to help you.”