Wanda Attaway can still remember the taste of her stem cell transplant 16 years ago.
“It tastes like tomatoes, canned tomatoes,” she said of having the cells added back to her body during the transplant.
Attaway was the first patient at Georgia Regents University Cancer Center to get the transplant as part of her treatment for breast cancer in 1997. On Saturday, the center will celebrate its 500th transplant earlier this year.
Attaway got her own stem cells back after she underwent very high dose chemotherapy that “was a little rough,” she said.
“The first time I had it, I think it burned my sinuses,” she said. Though not one to complain, Attaway said, she finally told a nurse, “It’s killing my head.”
Being the only patient in the four-bed transplant unit had its drawbacks, Attaway said.
“There was nobody to talk to,” she said, though friends would come stay with her. “If you tried to slip out of bed they heard you because you were the only one there.”
It was thought at the time that giving patients such as Attaway a very high dose of chemotherapy would greatly decrease the chances the cancer would come back. The chemotherapy would wipe out her stem cells, so they were taken out first and then added back after.
“But I think three years after we did her transplant, the data suggested that it was not as beneficial as we thought it would be,” said Dr. Anand Jillella, the chief of hematology/oncology and the founder of the program. “We don’t transplant breast cancer any more.”
In fact, transplants for a lot of cancer treatments are no longer performed because advances in chemotherapy make them less necessary, he said.
“Drugs are getting more sophisticated, so transplant is becoming less and less of an option,” Jillella said. But because of advances in supportive care, and in antibiotics and anti-rejection medications, the therapy can be offered to a much older group of patients than it was in previous years, so transplants seem to be up, Jillella said.
Attaway said she didn’t mind being the first.
“I’m thankful that I could be and I did,” she said.
When Jillella thinks back on it, he remembers a time when, before the unit was operational, patients were sent to Duke or Emory universities for transplants. He remembers the Saturday that Attaway was discharged, with her mother and father there to see her.
“I don’t think they would have been here if she had gone to Duke or Emory,” Jillella said. “We did something where we kept the patients and the families here. That was very rewarding.”