Defeating cancer once is a triumph. Beating it twice is remarkable. But doing so while you’re a high school and college student, maintaining high grades through treatment, and surviving because of a bone-marrow transplant that had less than a 10 percent chance of ever happening—well, that’s miraculous.
Our story began in 2007 in Monticello, where 16-year-old Brittany Beckmann lived with her mother and father, Kelly and Michael Carpinone, her 15-yearold sister, Ashley, and her 7-year-old brother, Michael. Brittany was a model student—great grades, on the crosscountry and track teams, a member of the band and chorus and drama club, holding a part-time waitressing job. Obviously a high-energy kid, Brittany was surprised that fall to find herself unusually tired over a 10-day period. She also noticed some unexplained bruises. And then, during a shift at work, she passed out. Thinking it might be anemia or mononucleosis, she went to Catskill Regional Medical Center for testing. She and her family were stunned by the result that came back: leukemia.
“I was in shock,” says Brittany, now 22. “It totally blew my mind.” She was sent to Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center and put under the care of Claudio Sandoval, M.D., a specialist in pediatric hematology and oncology. She started a two-year course of chemotherapy. For the first eight months, parts of her junior and senior years, she couldn’t attend her classes at Monticello High School. But she kept up with her schoolwork through the Internet and with in-class cameras that broadcast online—and she graduated with a 3.8 grade-point average, the 16th best in her class.
Brittany then attended the State University of New York at Cortland, and her freshman year was without incident. But in the spring of her second year she started having migraine headaches and bruising again. She went to Cortland Medical Center, fearing a relapse. “And it turned out that’s what had happened,” she says. “I was heartbroken.” The next day her parents came to get her and drove her back to Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital. “Now we really had to work hard,” Dr. Sandoval says. Her chances of a recurrence had been about 20 percent, he says, and once the cancer returns, chemotherapy becomes less successful.
“These cancer cells start to develop resistance and other biochemical tricks to keep the therapy from working,” he says. Now, the best hope was a bonemarrow transplant. But her cancer was particularly virulent, and nothing less than a 100 percent perfect match from a sibling would suffice. The odds of that happening were put at about 8 percent. Brittany admits that she feared the worst—that she would die. “I was scared,” she says. Both her siblings stepped up to be tested. “My little brother was 9 at the time, and he wanted to be a hero,” she says. “It was very cute.” But it was her sister Ashley who beat odds that a Las Vegas gambler would blanch at: she turned out to match perfectly. Before the transplant, Brittany had to undergo about three months of very intense chemotherapy in the hospital to eradicate her bone marrow and then stay in the hospital for the transplant, radiation treatments and recovery. During this time, schoolwork was out of the question, so she took a leave of absence. “I basically lived in the hospital the entire year,” she says.
Her transplant procedure took place in November 2010. For a few weeks afterward—the first 20 days in isolation to protect her devastated immune system— she was exhausted. “I slept a lot,” she says. But she did so well that she was allowed to leave the hospital 30 days after the transplant, the earliest anyone is permitted to leave (most patients take 40–60 days, some longer). She had to stay in her home for another 70 days, taking large doses of immunosuppressant drugs to ward off rejection of the transplant. By January 2011 she started to feel stronger and more active, and she was back to full strength in May. “I went rock climbing at a cancer retreat in Colorado that I found on the Internet,” she says.
Clearly, the old Brittany was back. She returned to SUNY Cortland in fall 2011, pursuing her major in kinesiology. She is a resident assistant, plays saxophone and flute in the Pep band and plays on the rugby team. And her GPA is 3.3. She has long hoped to be a doctor and is contemplating medical school, “but after spending so much time in the hospital, I am having second thoughts,” she confesses—she’s now considering physical therapy as a career instead. But she adds: “Dr. Sandoval thinks I should be an oncologist and join his team.” Dr. Sandoval says there is still a chance her illness could come back. “You are never free from cancer,” he says. But for now, things look good. “Brittany is a wonderful woman with a good attitude,” the doctor adds. “She had to hit the pause button in college, but now she’s back on play.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT SERVICES AVAILABLE AT MARIA FARERI CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL AT WESTCHESTER MEDICAL CENTER, PLEASE CALL 877.WMC.DOCS OR VISIT WESTCHESTERMEDICALCENTER.COM/MFCH.