She was given 5 years to live — almost 15 years ago

Darlene Kloeppner continues to defy odds after 2005 cancer diagnosis

Cancer survivor Darlene Kloeppner, seated, wears a neck brace while talking with her doctor in an exam room.

Multiple myeloma has put Darlene Kloeppner through a lot in the past 14 years.

The blood cancer that affects plasma cells in bone marrow has led her to undergo two bone marrow transplants and rounds and rounds of chemotherapy and immunotherapy. “It’s just endless,” Kloeppner said.

She has had a total of only three years in remission for her incurable disease. But even a debilitating bout with pneumonia that required seven weeks of hospitalization and seven weeks of inpatient therapy couldn’t keep her down.

That’s nothing short of amazing when you consider that upon diagnosis, at age 59, Kloeppner was told she likely wouldn’t live longer than five more years.

“Pretty soon, you stop counting and just take every year as it comes. Fourteen years I’ve made it. And I’m going to make it a lot longer,” she said.

Her positive attitude alone makes that seem more than possible.

Broken leg leads to diagnosis

When the plasma cells grow abnormally and out of control in multiple myeloma, it can lead to a variety of complications.

  • Normal blood cells can be crowded out of the bone marrow, resulting in low blood counts.
  • Bones can weaken because the process that breaks down old bone speeds up, and new bone growth can’t catch up to it.
  • The cancerous plasma cells don’t help fight infection like normal plasma cells do.
  • The cancerous cells make an abnormal protein that can hurt the kidneys.

People with multiple myeloma may have no symptoms for some time.

In fact, Kloeppner had no idea that she was living with an incurable cancer until one day in 2005 when she went car shopping.

The 4-foot-9 woman had picked out a “beautiful, fancy car” that had adjustable pedals she could reach more easily. But after completing paperwork, she misstepped from a curb and suddenly couldn’t walk. Something in her leg seemed to have snapped.

An immediate trip to Sanford Bemidji (Minnesota) Medical Center revealed that her left femur had broken — but that wasn’t all it revealed. Once the technician saw the X-ray of Kloeppner’s leg, she left to consult the doctor, then returned and told Kloeppner she was taking an X-ray of her chest as well.

“Then I knew there was something drastically wrong because otherwise they wouldn’t be doing that,” Kloeppner said.

After her multiple myeloma diagnosis, her first bone marrow transplant came in January 2006. Her two transplants have been the only time she lost her hair — from the conditioning process, including chemo, that precedes the transplant.

She feels fortunate, though, that with her other rounds of chemo, she hasn’t lost her hair or become sick. “And I get a warm blanket,” she added. “So it’s not bad at all.” She sympathizes, though, with those who do become ill.

House call in a blizzard

Medical oncologist and hematologist Peter Friedell at Sanford Joe Lueken Cancer Center in Bemidji has been part of Kloeppner’s treatment team for quite a while.

“I’m real comfortable with asking him questions and getting answers. He’s fun,” Kloeppner said.

She also became familiar with radiation oncologist D. Ross McBride this year.

Kloeppner had been scheduled to have chemo treatment one day in April. Her neck had really been hurting, though — so much that she didn’t want to go to treatment. The cancer center staff convinced her to come in because the chemo could lose effectiveness if she skipped.

While Kloeppner was there, registered nurse Tessa Schlosser advocated for her to get a CT scan of her neck. When CT technologist Theresa Wilander saw a neck fracture on the scan, she flagged Dr. McBride.

Kloeppner would need a custom-fit brace to help immobilize her neck. A large tumor in a neck vertebra had led to the fracture, and there was a danger that if the tumor pressed on the nerve next to it, it could stop her breathing.

A school bus accident had made the hospital emergency department a busy place, so Kloeppner planned to come in for her neck brace later that day. But when a snowstorm came up that afternoon, Dr. McBride didn’t want Kloeppner to endanger her neck further by risking the 10-mile ride on snowy rural roads from her house back to Bemidji.

So he gathered supplies for the brace and made an old-fashioned house call — in the middle of a blizzard.

The next day, Kloeppner spent time with the radiation oncology team at the cancer center getting mapped for 14 radiation treatments to try to shrink the tumor. In an unusually swift time frame, she also started her radiation treatments that day.

‘I’ve always loved life’

Like TV journalist Tom Brokaw, with whom she shares the disease of multiple myeloma, Kloeppner isn’t shy about telling people of her cancer experience.

“I know there are people who don’t reveal that they’re ill, but, boy, that friendly pat or sympathetic question just made life so much better,” she said.

She appreciates the support of her caregiver husband and her daughters, along with her friends.

Kloeppner has gotten to know her medical team well, too. “These nurses here are just super,” she said. “They all are like daughters to me.”

To live with cancer and its effects day in and day out for 14 years would challenge anyone’s positive attitude.

“But it’s kind of a waste of your life to sit and pout,” Kloeppner said. “I’ve always loved life. Loved being a mother. Loved being a grandma even better. And I don’t want to miss any of that. If you’re crabby all the time and down in the dumps, you chase people away. And I love people. I just love people.”

She’s feeling well and looking ahead to life, not to a disease’s death threat.

“I’m just assuming that life will go on, and I’ll go on with it and take each day as it comes.”

Learn more about cancer care at Sanford Health.

More stories

This is the latest in a series called “We’re In This Together,” videos and stories from everyday patients going through cancer treatment at Sanford Health. Get an idea of what to expect from cancer survivorship — follow along to their appointments, and see a glimpse of the support in their lives.

Posted In Cancer, Cancer Treatments

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