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Surviving cancer isn't just an option

by Kim Fickett
Landmark reporter

For Tina Zubeck, surviving lymphoma isn't just an option. It's a necessity.

A diagnosis by doctors at a leading lymphoma hospital in June of 2001 showed that Tina's small cell lymphoma was progressing into large cell lymphoma.

Tina's story actually began seveal years ago. After an original diagnosis of small cell lymphoma in 1997, Tina's nearly three-year waiting period came to an end in November of 1999 when tests revealed that the lymphoma was progressing. She needed to start thinking about treatments.

"Chemo wasn't an option because we knew it would come back and the illness builds resistance to the drugs," said Zubeck, who is a secretary for the Platte County R-3 School District. "We knew in a few months we'd be back looking for another solution."

Zubeck, along with her family, decided to try a clinical trial provided by the University of Omaha, who merits itself on being one of the leading lymphoma hospitals and having some of the world's best doctors.

The trial, which involved a vaccine made from one of Tina's own tumors, targeted her cell type of lymphoma so her body could fight the disease.
Zubeck began the vaccine in January of 2001 with one shot per month for the next five months.

At the end of June, tests showed that Tina was experiencing symptoms.

"I don't want to make it sound like the shots didn't work, because prior to the vaccine I went through chemotherapy which caused my cells to change and mutate. Those changes turned into large cell lymphoma," said Zubeck.

"The vaccine I was taking was for small cell lymphoma so it was not going to work because we were targeting small cell instead of large cell lymphoma."

Large cell lymphoma is a rapidly and more aggressive type of lymphoma then the small cell.

"We felt shock, dismay, anger, helplessness and we were on the pity potty for awhile but then we had to figure out what to do and how we were going to correct it," said Zubeck.

Zubeck stated that a doctor's treatment suggestion, as well as the hospital's reputation as a respected lymphoma hospital helped her make a decision on where she would turn next.

Tina's doctor recommended a procedure called peripheral stem cell. The procedure began with three rounds of chemo at home, and then had her return to Omaha for the next step.

The procedure involved taking Tina's own stem cells (which are the purest forms of bone marrow) and freezing them.

At the end of November, Zubeck underwent high doses of chemotherapy, which literally wiped out her entire immune system. She was placed in the Lied Transplant Center in Omaha, where her husband, Bob became her own personal care provider, monitoring her vitals, drawing blood, taking her temperature and making sure Tina received all the appropriate drugs prescribed to her.

"He was my little nurse and he took real good care of me," said Zubeck.

Following the chemotherapy treatments, doctors transplanted the frozen stem cells back into her body.

"The hope of the procedure is that the stem cells graph and create a new immune system. Which it did and now my immune system is back and slowly getting better," explained Zubeck. "It wiped out 42-years of antibodies."

Due to the procedure, Zubeck will need to return in about a year to receive all her childhood immunizations because they were also wiped out by the procedure.
"The doctors there told me I was the poster child for stem cell implant because my body did so well," stated Zubeck. "I have the greatest amount of respect and admiration for the hospital up there. They are very caring and it's a great place for anyone facing a lymphoma diagnosis."

Tina stated that fighting cancer is a mental game but also an emotional game.
"I go into it like I don't have it, even though I know I do. I know that I have a lot more things to do, places to visit and grandchildren to hug in the future and I don't let it get me down," said Zubeck.

Zubeck also told how there were children in the hospital ages 3-year-old and 16-year-old that were going through the same mental game.

"It breaks your heart and people should count their blessings it's not their kids," stated Zubeck. "I'd take it a hundred times over so kids don't have to have it, but it doesn't work that way."

Lymphoma has played a mental and emotional role on Tina, but those feelings have also extended to her family.

"Cancer is a double-edged sword in a way. The good thing is that our family has grown so close now and we support each other. It makes you realize to enjoy those fleeting moments that are funny or irritating," explained Zubeck. "As a mom, the bad side is how your children have to deal with it and how it makes them grow up in a way they shouldn't have to."

Since her initial diagnosis in 1997, Tina likes to assist others experiencing what she has, and lives every day to its fullest. While she is unable to donate her blood to aid others suffering from lymphoma, Tina feels it's her place to encourage everyone around her to donate blood and platelets.

"Over the course of my five weeks in the hospital, I had numerous blood and platelet transfusions to keep me alive. It's so important to give blood and platelets because so many people need it. I alone needed so many and you just don't realize how far reaching those donations are. I thank God for the people who gave those numerous donations of blood and platelets who saved my life," she said.