U students battles cancer, defeats the odds

By By Tiara C. Fuller

By Tiara C. Fuller

Kristi Potter first realized something was wrong on April 3.

For three months, she had been working frantically with a friend on a paper for a journal with a publishing date of March 31.

The paper was finally finished and Potter felt drained, so she decided to relax.

Potter slept straight through the next two days with little thought, but she knew something was wrong when she still felt tired on the third day.

“It was so scary not to know what was wrong with me, why I was feeling so faint,” said Potter, a doctoral student in computer science.

The next day, Potter met with an oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a newly discovered and rare form of cancer.

Early signs of AML are hard to identify because they are similar to those of the flu and other common illnesses. Potter had been feeling fatigued since she began working on her project, but attributed it to the lack of sleep. She was working seven days a week and going to school full-time.

“I was constantly fatigued. I would start to sweat and be exhausted after going down one flight of stairs,” Potter said.

Symptoms of AML are caused by the replacement of normal bone marrow with leukemic cells, which results in a drop in red and white blood cell counts, also known as anemia.

Compared to chronic leukemia, which can take years to progress, AML progresses rapidly and is typically fatal if left untreated.

Potter spent April in the hospital receiving chemotherapy. The treatment lasts 24 hours a day for 7 days straight.

The nurses set an IV through a main artery in Potter’s neck that dropped chemicals into her bloodstream.

“That was probably the worst. It was pretty invasive and it got pretty swollen afterwards,” she said. “I didn’t really feel anything while I was going through it?they give you a lot of drugs.”

Food didn’t seem appetizing due to the metallic taste left in her throat. Potter said she survived on grilled cheese and soup because it was easy to eat.

But the hardest part of the process was recovering from the side effects of the chemo treatments.

Potter’s hair fell out within a week and she was left feeling nauseous. Despite the discomfort, Potter said she felt lucky.

“Nurses would tell me how much leukemia treatment has improved over the last 10 years,” she said. “They told me that patients would throw up constantly after chemo and there wasn’t anything they could do. Now they have drugs for that, too, drugs put through the IV that work immediately.”

There are 10,500 cases of AML recorded each year. Few people who have AML cancer survive.

Potter’s cancer is now in remission. Although her last blood test showed no sign of leukemic cells, she will receive one more round of outpatient chemotherapy.

In August, she hopes to have a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, she has no siblings, forcing the hospital to search for a donor with the same blood type as Potter.

Through it all, Potter said the hardest part wasn’t learning about her illness or the treatments that she’d go through, though the prognosis was good and the doctors told her there was a cure. Telling her family and friends was the most difficult “because they are just as upset as (I was).”

Luckily, Potter hasn’t faced her journey alone. Joe Kniss, her boyfriend, has been keeping a blog detailing her progress.

Kniss received a PhD from the U’s computer science program last year, so he knows all of Potter’s current classmates. He decided to start the blog since he found himself “telling the same story everyday, because so many people wanted to know how Kristi was doing and what was going on.”

Kniss teaches at the University of New Mexico, but he flew up when Potter first went to the hospital. Every week for the next month, he’d fly up after his Thursday classes and return in time for his classes on Tuesday.

“It wasn’t that bad once I got in the rhythm?except, it was expensive,” he said.

Kniss organized Solidarity Day, where thirteen of Potter’s classmates shaved their heads as a sign of support.

“It was a nice way to make people feel like they were involved and keep them from worrying,” he said. “It was kind of extreme, but it was a way to send a big message that doesn’t really carry a high cost.”

In addition to her boyfriend and her classmates, Potter has also received much support from her department and her family. Potter’s parents are moving to Salt Lake City from Seattle for the next six months.

Potter was supposed to receive her PhD this year, but now has to return to school for another year. She plans to continue her dissertation research on the visualization of uncertainty data while receiving further treatments.

In April, doctoral computer science student Kristi Potter was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a rare form of cancer. After going through a round of chemotherapy, Potter is now out of the hospital and her cancer is in remission.