When David Timko, the executive director of the National Capital Area Chapter of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, talks to families touched by leukemia or lymphoma, he can truly say he knows how they feel.
Six years after accepting the position at the chapter in 1987, Timko, a Clifton resident, was diagnosed with a low-grade lymphoma. After nine months of chemotherapy and weeks of radiation, Timko's lymphoma went into remission. He has been cancer free for nearly 10 years now.
"I had moved up to the top chapter in the country. Then I got the illness," Timko said. "I was like the poster boy for the organization."
SHORTLY AFTER ACCEPTING the post of executive director, Timko created what has evolved into the annual Leukemia Ball, the chapter's most successful fund-raiser. This year's ball is slated for Saturday and the goal is to raise $3 million. Last year, the event raised $2.6 million. The funds are earmarked for research, patient services, educational programs and advocacy, said Timko.
"The chapter didn't get much money in special fund-raising events at that time. The first year I was here, I contacted a lot of CPAs [certified public accountants] and it was pretty successful. Over the years it evolved into the ball and involved the entire community," Timko said. "It looks like we're going to have our most successful year and I have a chance to tell everyone how important their gift is. I'm living proof the medical advances we've made really work."
THERE ARE three major forms of blood-related cancers, leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, each of which comes in different varieties ranging from low-grade, treatable diseases to fatal illnesses.
"A lot of varieties of leukemia use to be fatal, but because of scientific advances, survival rates have gone up," said Dr. Peter Francis of Fairfax Northern Virginia Hematology Oncology in the Alexandria area and Timko's doctor. "The cure rate is very high depending on the type."
According to The Society's Web site, for example, the cure rates for some forms of childhood leukemia have risen from 4 percent in 1960 to more than 80 percent today. And Francis said Hodgkin lymphoma has a 70 percent to 80 percent cure rate.
However, the site also reports that leukemia is the leading disease killer of children in America. In addition, lymphoma rates increased by 83 percent between 1973 and 1998, which represents the highest increase of any cancer. And that multiple myeloma is one of the top-10 leading causes of death among blacks.
"As people live longer and longer, we've seen the number of diagnoses also go up," said Francis. "It seems there may be some [cause] in daily life."
TIMKO UNDERSTANDS the toll a diagnosis can have on a family.
"For my family it was hard. Emily was a senior in high school and Lauren was starting her freshman year. That's two tough years normally," Timko said of his daughters. "I was never hospitalized and I did go to work. I had some idea of what to expect, but you never really know until you live through it."
He also went through all the side effects other patients go through such as spike fevers, the feeling of flu, loss of appetite and dehydration. He said what was hardest was that the side effects would vary from treatment to treatment, so there was no way to prepare.
Francis said chemotherapy is the most common treatment, however, he said there are indicators that tell doctors if the patient has a poor survival rate before beginning treatments. "So we hold off treatment until they absolutely need it," he said.
The general belief among the medical community said Timko, is the more time that elapses for a patient after treatment, the more likely it is that person will not suffer a relapse. However, the memories never fade.
"Every time you come up with an ache or pain, it reminds you of when you were sick and it scares you," Timko said. "But as much as possible, you just want to put it behind you."