RACINE COUNTY — After more than four decades, Michele Bachmann knew her body well enough to know there was something definitely wrong.
Yet it would be almost a year of frustration, aggravation and suffering before her feelings would receive validation — ultimately landing her in a grueling fight to save her life.
“I kept saying I was sick. People thought I was crazy,” she said. “I just kind of felt off, tired. Things just weren’t right.”
Bachmann, 50, who lives in Racine, said she contacted the doctor, who ran some blood tests.
“He said everything was fine. He said I just need to lose some weight and sit at my desk properly,” Bachmann said, giving her head a slight shake.
It wasn’t until later that she learned those tests results showed something more: Her white blood cell count was high.
“He said ‘oh no, you need to exercise, lose weight, take vitamins,’ ” she said. “By the time I got diagnosed in August, my spleen was the size of a basketball and weighed 25 pounds.”
It was about 11 months from the time she first knew she was sick before Bachmann — who owns Grapes 2 Glass Wine Boutique, at 10351 Washington Ave., Suite 200, in Sturtevant — received the proper diagnosis. It just wasn’t the one anyone wanted to hear.
She was in so much pain one day that she couldn’t make it to work in North Chicago, Ill., where she was a wine consultant. Her doctor was on vacation, so she went into prompt care. They took some blood, and she went home to make lunch, she said. They called her to come back because she was so low on blood. She received a transfusion, requiring three or four units, she said.
While at the hospital with her husband, parents and a friend, a doctor walked into her room, Bachmann recalled as if he stepped through that door only yesterday.
“He said ‘we just got the test results. You have leukemia,’ ” she recounted. “Everyone was in hysterics. It was a relief to me. I knew I was sick.”
He performed her first bone marrow biopsy while she still was in Wheaton Franciscan-All Saints hospital, 3801 Spring St., she said.
“It was probably one of the most horrible things I’ve ever done,” Bachmann said. “I was holding onto the railing of the bed and I probably could have broken the railing.”
But the doctor there wasn’t familiar with the type of cancer she had, Bachmann said.
Bachmann, who has nine siblings, said she called her sister, who had just completed a three-month course of chemotherapy at Froedtert Hospital in Wauwautosa because of tumors along her spinal column.
Her sister’s doctor recommended a new doctor at Froedtert, Timothy Fenske, Bachmann said. Fenske, a medical oncologist at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin, said he started working at the hospital in July 2005, and met Bachmann the following month.
He said she had mantle cell lymphoma. It is a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he said.
“She had a lot of disease in her system,” Fenske said.
So she had a choice — the first of multiple tough decisions.
“They said where you’re at, you’ve got about two weeks to live. They explained my cancer is mainly in older men,” Bachmann said. “They said it’s only 4 percent of the types of leukemias and lymphomas. (Fenske) said ‘we could make you comfortable, or we could have you try this clinical going on right now.’ ”
But the course of treatment would be very strong.
“I said ‘if I’m gonna die in two weeks, what does it matter?’ ” Bachmann said.
She began her first chemo treatment in August 2005, and it truly was brutal, she explained. She developed sores inside her mouth. She lost her hair. She repeatedly lost her lunch. She became so weak she barely could move, she recalled.
Fenske said because Bachmann was so strong and young, and had such an extensive family support network, he suggested she undergo this type of high-dose chemotherapy. The average age of patients with Bachmann’s type of lymphoma is 63, he said.
“I thought chemo was chemo,” said Michele’s husband, Steve Bachmann. “Apparently there are hundreds of types.”
Looking back, Michele Bachmann can laugh at one type of chemo. She said the warning that came with it basically stated if she was allergic to eating rats, she might have a problem with it.
“I said, ‘well, I’ve never eaten rats, so we should be OK,’ ” she laughed.
“She’s one of our favorites,” Fenske said of Bachmann, in part because of her sense of humor. “Some people are a real challenge to get through chemotherapy. She was a trouper through it. Some people are really high maintenance.”
Often during chemo, patients’ sense of taste will be affected.
“Her thing was pickles,” Fenske said with a laugh. “She’d have this huge jar of pickles (when she came for chemo). I don’t know how many she’d work through.”
He said he suggested this type of aggressive chemotherapy because he wanted to send Bachmann’s cancer into remission, then dose her with stem cells he would transplant into her.
Stem cells are found throughout the body, including in bone marrow. Stem cells are a very basic building-block type of cells. In stem cell transplants, a batch of healthy cells is inserted into the body.
Froedtert spokeswoman Nalissa Wienke said “stem cell transplants are often the last best hope for patients.”
To help Bachmann’s body rebuild, Fenske gave her another choice, Bachmann said. She could use her own stem cells, or receive a transplant from a donor — such as one of her siblings. She chose her own stem cells, receiving the transplant Feb. 15, 2006.
Fenske said there are pros and cons to using one’s own stem cells and to using a donor’s.
Using one’s own stem cells allows doctors to administer high-dose chemotherapy, which works better at treating this type of cancer, but can leave patients without functioning bone marrows, Fenske said.
Transplanting the patient’s own stem cells also allows patients to recover better from this more aggressive, high-dose chemotherapy, Fenske explained. And it carries less of a risk — just 1 percent to 2 percent — of infection or a serious complication, he added.
So in Bachmann’s case, “it’s her own immune system coming back,” Fenske said.
But when a donor’s stem cells are used, patients would have to take anti-rejection drugs. And, they have more risk of infection, Fenske explained, at 15 percent to 20 percent.
“Historically, (with) the type of lymphoma she had, the average person only lived two to three years after diagnosis. In recent years, the prognosis has increased dramatically,” Fenske said.
Now, 50 to 60 percent of patients who receive high-dose chemotherapy and their own stem cells still are in remission six years later, Fenske said — just as Bachmann is.
An 8- to 10-year period is considered a good length of remission, Fenske said. And if it returns, he said Bachmann still could have a stem cell transplant from a donor.
“I’m just extremely, extremely happy” to be cancer-free for the past six years, she said. “I feel good.”
During the first couple of years after chemo and the transplant, she said she was waiting for the cancer to come back, almost preparing for it.
“(Now) if I feel run down, I know I didn’t go to bed early enough. I don’t have that really crappy feeling anymore,” Bachmann said. “Now I’ve got two birthdays. One in April and one on Feb. 15 — that’s my new life.”
Facts on stem cell transplants at Froedtert Hospital:
• 153 stem cell transplants were performed last year at Froedtert Hospital
• More than 2,000 stem cell transplants have been performed there since the program began in 1980
• The types of stem cell transplants performed are stem cells from yourself (called autologous); donors/relatives (called allogeneic); and umbilical cord donations. It is the only Blood and Marrow Transplant program in the region in which all three are provided for patients
— Information provided by Froedtert Hospital spokeswoman Nalissa Wienke