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Patient Pushes Herself to Walk Again after Beating Lymphoma

In February 2017, Karen Warnock felt a cringe-worthy flare of back and hip pain. Walking was difficult and excruciating. The consensus among friends and family? Sciatica was the culprit.

After a trip to urgent care and two shots in her left hip, Warnock, 51, a resident of Hokes Bluff, Ala., felt much better. But her relief was short-lived, as the pain returned the next day. Over the course of the following week, the part-time city clerk and private piano and voice teacher began losing feeling in her leg. That’s when her internal warning lights began flashing. Before she knew it, Warnock couldn’t move her legs.

“We assumed it was a bulging disc, so my mom insisted I go to UAB,” Warnock recalls. In the emergency department, doctors suspected that a disc in her back was pressing on a nerve. “They immediately admitted me and prepped me for surgery, and during the operation, they saw a small tumor inside my spine.”

Karen WarnockUAB Medicine patient Karen Warnock is now cancer-free and back to walking, working, and teaching private music lessons.

The tumor was biopsied, and later that evening Warnock was hit with the news: She had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) and was paralyzed from the waist down.

The Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is a “superhighway” for collecting and filtering the body’s toxins and waste and for controlling the movement of white blood cells, which fight infection and disease. The lymph nodes, spleen, tonsils, bone marrow, and thymus gland fuel the lymphatic fluid that travels through the body. Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, causes mutated white blood cells to multiply uncontrollably.

The most well-known types of lymphoma are Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The most common type of NHL is diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL). This is the type that hit Warnock with a one-two punch – literally. Warnock was diagnosed with double-hit lymphoma, a particularly aggressive form of DLBCL.

Understandably, the NHL diagnosis shook Warnock to the core. “When a doctor tells you something like that, it’s the very last thing you ever think you’ll hear,” Warnock says. “So many things went through my mind, but mostly that I wanted to finish raising Kadie and Will,” her then-13- and 15-year-old children.

Warnock’s bottom line? “My diagnosis meant that the UAB team of doctors had to figure out how to treat lymphoma, and I had to figure out how to walk again,” she says.

At that point, UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center hematologist/oncologist Amitkumar Mehta, MD, entered the picture. Drawing upon his clinical and research focus on lymphoma, Dr. Mehta explains that lymphoma diagnoses and treatments have evolved over the years. “It used to be difficult to identify lymphoma subtypes,” he says. “Now we can conduct genetic studies on lymphoma cells, pinpoint the subtype, and aggressively treat the disease.”

The Daunting Road Ahead

Warnock’s first hurdles were six rounds of chemotherapy and 20 radiation treatments. After receiving one chemotherapy treatment at UAB, Warnock was admitted to UAB Spain Rehabilitation Center, where she spent nearly eight weeks. There, she underwent another round of chemo, followed by four more at UAB Hospital and The Kirklin Clinic of UAB Hospital Infusion Clinic. Then she began radiation. Still, Warnock recalls her time at Spain Rehabilitation Center for its other challenges, namely three hours of physical therapy each day.

Warnock used her love of her children and her faith as motivational fuel. When she was admitted to Spain Rehabilitation Center, “The first thing I did was put Philippians 4:13 on a big piece of paper and tape it on the wall,” she says. When therapists took Warnock out of her wheelchair and put her onto the floor to encourage her to kick her legs, she would repeat that verse of scripture to the beat of the exercise: “I can do all through Christ, who strengthens me,” Warnock recalls, “It was a constant reminder that I can do anything as long as God is giving me the strength.”

Warnock also used a marker to write “Kadie” on her right hand and “Will” on her left. “That way, I would see my kids’ names every time I looked down at my hands, which was all the time,” she says. Warnock’s therapists often commented on how hard she was working. “But with those two motivating me, how could I give up?”

By April 2017, Warnock exceeded her goal for discharge, which was to take 10 steps with the aid of a walker. “My dad is an Alabama fan and I’m an Auburn graduate, so I used that rivalry as a challenge to do more. I took 20 steps,” she says. Still, Warnock left Spain Rehabilitation Center in a wheelchair and would use the chair for another three months.

Warnock continued physical therapy at Gadsden Regional Medical Center through the end of October 2017. At that point, she was able to move from using a walker to a cane. In March 2018, she began walking on her own.

Today, Warnock continues physical therapy exercises on her own, and she purchased a Fitbit device to help track her progress. She laughs at the device’s pre-set 10,000 steps-per-day goal and instead celebrates achieving her own personal goals. “The first week, my goal was 1,000 steps, and I was so excited to have walked 1,700 steps on the first day,” she says. “The next week, my goal was 2,000 steps. Now, I’m at 3,700.”

Gratitude and Lessons Learned

For others, Warnock’s journey may seem unimaginable. For her, it has presented an opportunity to both reaffirm her faith and take a leap of faith. She recalls her physical therapist saying, “You’re never going to learn to walk if you’re afraid of falling.” Today, Warnock understands that falling – both physically and mentally – is part of the process.

Her experience also reinforced the importance of gratitude. “Before I got sick, there was a sign in Hobby Lobby that said, ‘There is always, always, always something to be thankful for,’” she recalls. “As soon as I got well enough, I went to Hobby Lobby and bought that sign. It’s hanging near our front door.”

Warnock’s gratitude for the entire UAB team is boundless, but she expresses particular thanks to Dr. Mehta. “When he first talked to me about lymphoma, I burst into tears,” she says. “But he grabbed my hands and said he would fight it with me, that we will fight this together.”

And fight they did. “He was very particular about what he wanted me to do, and I’ve done everything,” Warnock says. “He pushed me to push myself and always wanted to motivate me.” The same was true of all UAB Medicine doctors, nurses, and staff who participated in her care, she adds. “UAB is like a well-oiled machine. If you have to be sick, it’s a great place to go.”

Pushing Forward

For his part, Dr. Mehta credits Warnock with having the determination to beat lymphoma. “I never saw her depressed – she wanted to fight and she wanted to win,” Dr. Mehta says. “Regardless of the challenge, she was always enthusiastic and kept pushing herself.”

Today, Warnock is cancer-free, is once again teaching piano and voice, and has gone back to her job at city hall. “My family support has been tremendous,” she says, citing her parents, sister, and children as particular sources of support and inspiration. Dr. Mehta echoes that sentiment, noting, “Her parents were by her side and supported her throughout the treatment.”

Warnock now relishes tasks that many perceive as hassles. “I remember when I’d complain about taking kids to school, running errands, going to the store, and cooking the meals,” she says. “Now, I absolutely cherish every minute and thank the Lord that I’m able to do it.”