Mikaela Elwell’s earliest childhood memories are of hospitals and doctors, of sickness and disease and treatment. She did not know it, but she was on the edge of death.
She survived, but it took months of intense chemotherapy that was physically risky, with side effects she still feels today at age 26.
Still, she feels blessed. To defeat acute lymphocytic leukemia, cancer of the blood, would have been a near impossibility only a generation earlier. Now the survival rates for childhood leukemia push beyond a near-miraculous 85 percent. It was learning about her own treatment, about the many chemicals that coursed through her body, what they were for, what they did, and their lasting wanted and unwanted effects, that sparked her intense interest in science. She is now in the midst of pharmacy school with the goal of becoming a certified oncology pharmacist engaged in clinical research. If that’s not enough, in her spare time she is raising money for cancer research by training and running marathons. And, she smiles a lot.
She doesn’t remember the beginning of her story. She was on a family vacation in Hawaii with parents Terry and Becky Elwell and three older sisters. “I was fussy, but all children are a little fussy,” she said. She had an ear infection and the typical flu-like symptoms. Back in Portland a doctor prescribed antibiotics, but her parents were concerned and sought another diagnosis. Tests confirmed leukemia, and chemotherapy began immediately. She was 13 months old.
She was treated with six different agents. “They treat you as powerfully as they can. … It’s like they just slam you with drugs.” Her memories are of the bad and the good, with many kindnesses standing out. Her parents told her of doctors preparing them for the worst, of seeing other children pass away, of covering their ears to block their child’s screams of pain.
Soon after treatment began the family moved to Wenatchee. The therapy here and at Children’s Hospital in Seattle took three years, and was a success. Treatment stopped in 1989. In five years she was declared cancer-free.
At Wenatchee High School, Elwell took an elective course in anatomy and physiology. A research paper was required, and she decided to investigate the long-term effects of cancer treatment. So, she reviewed her own medical records. “It was amazing to me. I got to look through all these drugs I was given and I didn’t even realize what they were. I was able to go through them and see what they were used for and their side effects … That exercise, writing that paper, made me realize this was something I wanted to do.”
It was off to Gonzaga University, with magna cum laude graduation in 2009, then a test-the-waters job at the Clinic Pharmacy in Wenatchee, and then to the University of Colorado in Denver for pharmacy school. Next week she begins her third of four years of study for a doctorate of pharmacy.
In the meantime she became involved in a program called Team In Training, where a group of motivated people share a training regime for a major athletic challenge, in their case the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco in October, and use it to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. You can donate by going to the website teamintraining.org and searching on Mikaela Elwell, and read her blog at the same time.
In education, and in running, the goals are the same. Elwell wants to perfect and improve treatment for blood cancers, to maximize good effects and minimize side effects. The future of oncology is in pharmacy, she said.
“As I grew up and started to understand the disease a little bit more, and especially the high-risk treatment you get as a kid and how that affects you as you grow up, it’s something I’ve always thought about, more so in a positive way than a negative way. What’s driven me to this point is somewhere there are kids just like myself. I’ve always thought about them and the situation and it makes me feel very blessed.”
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at warner@ wenatcheeworld.com or 665-1163.