By Sara James Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/14/2006 4:27:51 PM ET 2006-02-14T21:27:51

This story aired Dateline Sunday, Feb. 5.

Erin Zammett was leading the life she had dreamed of. At 23, she was an editorial assistant at a Glamour magazine, living in New York City, had a serious boyfriend, and was close to her family and friends.

Erin Zammett: At 23, I was working at Glamour magazine, I had a great apartment in the city. It was unbelievable. It was a great life.

Sara James, Dateline correspondent: Did you ever pinch yourself and say "I can’t believe I’m here at 23 with all of this"?

Erin Zammett: Just this whole life that I couldn’t believe was my life. Absolutely.

It all seemed too good to be true... and soon that good life took a serious turn.

James: And then one day, you went in for a routine check up?

Erin Zammett: Yeah, I was not feeling sick at all. And he checked me all out. The next day I got a call from him. He said that there was some abnormal levels in my blood and that I needed to come down right away. That’s when I knew it was something bad. He used my name. He was like, “Erin, I don’t think this should wait.”

Erin’s doctor told her he believed she had leukemia and that more tests were needed.

Erin Zammett: After I got out of the appointment, I sort of stumbled out onto the street and everything felt surreal. And I needed those few minutes where I didn’t tell anybody. I knew as soon as I told somebody it was going to make it real and I knew as soon as I told my mom, it was going to change everything.

Cindy Zammett, Erin's mother: You think the worst. You really do. I knew if there was anything, it would be, Erin would be able to handle it.

Erin’s mom, Cindy, and dad, John, always considered Erin to be the strongest of their three daughters— the one who would tackle problems head on. But Cindy also knew Erin had a tendency to worry, and was now regretting something she repeatedly told Erin through the years to calm her down.

Cindy Zammett: I’d say “Don’t worry, it’s not cancer.”

Tests showed Erin had chronic myelogenous leukemia, CML, a  deadly blood cancer. Each year, 4,300 people are diagnosed with it, usually people over the age of 40. Without treatment, Erin’s body would not be able to produce enough healthy blood cells and she would, over the next few years, develop life-threatening complications.

A stem cell transplant, a risky procedure, had been the only treatment. Without one, the disease could be a death sentence.

Erin Zammett: No cure at 23, it’s kind of scary. You feel— I certainly felt— like I was invincible at 23.

Erin was scared, but not running for cover. After all, Erin was the tough one in the family.

Erin Zammett: I didn’t really want to cry. Always in my life, I felt like "If I cry, then they’re going to feel worse for me." And I didn’t want anyone to feel bad for me. I’ve hated that. I never wanted to be seen as the victim.

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: She’s very strong and I knew she’d fight it no matter what and I knew she had us to help her.

Meghan Zammett: I don’t even know that I could be half as strong as she was.

Erin’s sisters, Meghan and Melissa, couldn’t imagine facing what Erin was going through. And Erin was glad they didn’t have to.

Erin Zammett: I was almost glad it was me and nobody else.

James: You rather than you sisters?

Erin Zammett: Definitely. I mean Melissa, it was like sort of a joke in the family that she was like this big hypochondriac and she always thought she had cancer. We just didn’t think that she could have handled it.

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: I’m a hypochondriac. I couldn’t deal with it.

Erin also shared her cancer diagnosis with colleagues at Glamour, the same day a new issue was coming out.

Erin Zammett: I was diagnosed November 15th which is the same date that our December issue hit news stands. And in that issue was a story named “These Women Knew They Were Dying, Then a New Drug Saved Their Lives.” And it was three women who had CML.

James: And this was the exact same form of leukemia you had been diagnosed with?

Erin Zammett: Exact same.

The article told of a newly approved drug, Gleevac, a pill, with few side effects, which when taken daily, had been shown in a majority of cases to inhibit the growth of abnormal white blood cells.

Medical trials of the drug had been taking place at Oregon Health and Science University’s Cancer Institute, where Erin went to seek treatment with Dr. Michael Mauro.

Dr. Michael Mauro, Erin's doctor: She had the transplant option which was a known and standard approach. Gleevac which was a newer approach with limited follow up, but excellent chances for success.

Erin had decisions to make. Bone marrow or stem cell transplant had a track record of working in a majority of young patients like Erin, but  required a perfect donor match— and Erin would need chemotherapy which could leave her infertile.

Gleevac, on the other hand, had few side effects. It suppresses the leukemia so it’s virtually undetectable in the blood. But the drug is not a cure, and since it’s relatively new, no one knows how long it works— or whether it might effect other treatment options later on.

Erin Zammett: It seemed like Gleevac could work for me and it could work for along time and I’d rather hold off on the transplant as long as possible.

So Erin chose Gleevac. She would have to take four pills a day for the rest of her life. There was also a backup plan— in case the drug didn’t work, her sisters were tested to see if they might be a match for a stem cell transplant.

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: I was half match.

James: And in this case is a half match any good at all?

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: No, not at all.

Meghan Zammett: And then we found out that I was a match. I was thrilled in the sense that I could possibly save her life. But it was just so scary thinking that, my God, I could be responsible for her not…

Melissa Zammett: She had a hard time dealing with it.

Meghan Zammett: It was just hard because anything I did from that point on I’m just... I said to Erin, “I’m living for two now” and you know, I’m all excited when I said it. But then when I was alone thinking about it. “Oh my god, I’m living for two now.”

Erin and her family hoped it wouldn’t come to having a transplant, that the pills would be enough. Erin seemed to be responding well—having very few side effects, feeling good and certainly not looking ill.

Erin Zammett: I had this horrible disease, but I was taking Gleevac and I felt fine. So it was hard for me to realize sort of the gravity of the whole thing.

In a way, Erin tried to ignore the fact that she had a disease that was often fatal. She continued working long hours on stories ranging from romantic vacations to mixing cocktails. She was determined to move ahead and eventually become a writer. She tried to keep her leukemia separate from work.  But that changed when Erin was approached by Glamour’s editor in chief.

Erin Zammett:  She came to my desk and said, “You know, if you’d ever be interested in writing about your experience, I think our readers would be intensely interested to know what it was like for you.”  And inside, I’m like, “Yes.” I was dying to write about it.

James: And did it in a way also  give you something positive to do with this experience?

Erin Zammett: Absolutely.

And so every few months, a column ran in Glamour that Erin wrote updating readers on her condition.

At the same time, Erin became active in the Leukemia and Lymphoma society.

Erin Zammett: Immediately after I met some of the people there, I decided to just get completely involved.

And it wasn’t just Erin, but her whole family, younger sister ran marathons raising money— and older sister Melissa really took up the cause raising so much money that she was named the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s woman of the year.

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: I think three months we raised almost $40,000. And it was fabulous, we had a great time.

Also by Erin’s side was her boyfriend Nick— stoic on the outside, but worried.

Nick: When I’m like lying in bed at night sometimes it will cross my mind, “What if Erin relapses? What if she gets really sick?”

As much as Erin tried to live as if nothing was wrong, the reality of her disease intruded. Doctors needed to make sure her leukemia was under control. Every few months she needed to have bone marrow extracted from her hipbone to test for evidence of leukemia.

After nine months of taking Gleevac, the news was great: The leukemia was virtually undetectable.

And there was more good news: married sister Melissa was pregnant. Erin would be an aunt for the first time.

Erin Zammett: It just sort of gave us something else to just focus on and be really grateful for and be excited about.

But that focus was about to change with devastating news.

Photo by Karen Pearson courtesy of Glamour Magazine
From left, Meghan, Melissa, and Erin Zammett

Erin’s sister Melissa was pregnant at age 27 with her first child. Melissa always dreamed of being a mom, but being pregnant turned out to be harder than she imagined.

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: I don't like pain and I’m a hypochondriac. I had a bad pregnancy to begin with I had a rash all over my body—all these things that they used to make fun of me for, chalking up to my pregnancy… it was bad.

Melissa’s sisters thought her string of complaints was just Melissa being typically melodramatic.

Erin Zammett: She had a lump in her neck that her doctor wasn’t sure what it was. It could have been a pulled muscle, could have been a cyst. She had a biopsy. Then, she got the results back.

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: I found out I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma—seven months pregnant. I got a call from the doctor and she said, “If you’re going to get any cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is the cancer to get. It’s the most curable.” She went on to say all these other things.

Melissa immediately called Erin.

Erin Zammett: I just started sobbing and dropped to my knees— and I was so scared.

Sara James, Dateline correspondent: It sounds like you more scared for Melissa than you were for yourself.

Erin Zammett: Totally, totally.

James: Did, it also seem like this can not be real? Two of us have cancer?

Erin Zammett: Yes, it was unbelievable. The fact that it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma which is a blood-related cancer. I was practically the poster girl for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I have leukemia and she has lymphoma. It was crazy.

The news that two sisters had cancer had to be broken to the third sister, Meghan.

James: Did you fear that you would be three for three?

Meghan Zammett: Yeah. I still do. After she was diagnosed, I went to the doctor and had all my blood tested and was sort of put on a routine checkup type deal with my doctors.

No doctor believed that Erin and Melissa’s cancers were related. It just seemed to be a horrible coincidence.

Cindy Zammett, Erin's mother: It was so unbelievable but now not only are you worried about your daughter, but this unborn baby too. What in the world is going to happen to him?

But doctors were concerned for Melissa’s health and told her she had to start chemotherapy while she was seven months pregnant.

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: They assured me that there was this chemo that had been used even in the first trimester and there has been no side effects. And I was already in my third trimester. I would be getting 4 cycles. It was, basically, I had no choice from the doctor’s point of view.

So a pregnant Melissa went once a week for chemo. And this time, instead of Melissa being there for Erin, Erin was there for Melissa. Now Melissa became the focus of Erin’s glamour columns.

Erin Zammett: People would say, “Oh, I can’t believe you’re pregnant and you have cancer. But in way, thank God she’s pregnant because if she weren’t it would just be too depressing.”

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: From the second I was diagnosed, all my energy went into that baby and just thinking about the welfare of that baby.

James: You had a focus—besides the cancer, you had something.

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: Besides the cancer. Exactly.

After a nerve-wracking month on chemo, Melissa’s baby boy was born.

Cindy Zammett: I thought I was going to have a heart attack before that baby was brought out… to see how he was. I was terrified.

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: They handed me this little boy and it was 10 fingers, 10 toes, and no problems.

Her son, Andrew, seemed fine and Melissa continued her three month course of chemotherapy plus radiation for Hodgkin’s lymphoma— which  unlike Erin’s cancer, had a long proven treatment.

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: Erin’s cancer is not a good cancer to have except for the fact that she is responding so greatly to this pill. She pops a pill everyday, she never lost her hair—she never really missed a day of work because of the cancer. And I, on the other hand, looked like a cancer patient. I felt like a cancer patient and I supposedly had the good, the nice cancer.

Erin Zammett: I remember thinking that when I was first diagnosed, if there was something that could cut out—if there was chemo I could do, I would love to. I mean I’m not complaining that I feel great, and I’m able to take a pill. But with some of these other cancers you can just go through treatment and sure it may be horrible, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel because you know you’re going to be cured. And for Melissa that was what we thought. We felt pretty confident that was going to be the way it would happen.

And that was the way it went for Melissa. Six months after her diagnosis, she finished treatment and went into remission. To celebrate, the family had a party.

Erin Zammett: And she turned out to be a trooper, big time.

James: So “Miss Hypochondriac” is stronger than any of you?

Erin Zammett: Completely, completely.

Good news seemed to be contagious. The entire family enjoyed a healthy baby Andrew, including Meghan who was helping out as Andrew’s nanny.  Erin’s Glamour columns continued to be well-received. She was promoted  to assistant editor. And most important, her leukemia was in check.

Erin Zammett: We’re feeling like it was all done and we were doing great.

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: We’re finally, I thought, moving on with our lives.

James: Did you feel like I can finally let my guard down a little bit?

Melissa Zammett Gonzalez: I did for a little while. And then I developed a cough and it scared me. And I kind of, in the back of my head, knew things weren’t good.

Almost a year and a half after her original diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Melissa’s cancer was back.

Erin Zammett: To me, Melissa relapsing was worse than either of us being diagnosed for the first time. Because it was just, you think, “God, what was this whole year for? Nothing.”

Now, Melissa needed a stem cell transplant.  Unlike Erin, who relies on sister Meghan as her donor match if the medication stops working, Melissa’s cancer could be treated using her own stem cells.  But it’s still an agonizing procedure requiring a three-week hospital stay.

James:  Everybody was thinking that if there were a transplant, it was gonna be for Erin.

Melissa Zammett: Exactly which is so ironic. That’s why the whole thing is so bizarre.

Melissa’s transplant went smoothly, but she would have to wait to learn if it worked. And six months later, the news was good: She was cancer free, in remission.

Erin, meanwhile, is doing well. Almost four years, after being diagnosed with CML, she technically can’t call herself “cured,” but has learned to live with cancer. She continues to speak  at cancer events  and has written about her experience in “My So-Called Normal Life.” Erin’s also an unpaid spokesperson for Gleevac, the drug she credits with saving her life.

While Erin is more than just coping with her illness, she acknowledges  the uncertainties.

Erin Zammett: Every test I go to, I get a little nervous. I wonder is this going to be the test where it comes back.

Will the drug keep working? Will Erin need a transplant? And will she be able to have children? Due to questions about potential side effects, she can not get pregnant while on the drug.

Erin Zammett: I mean obviously every aspect of my life is uncertain now in terms of my health because nobody does know. But the baby thing is sort of the one big uncertainty.

And that’s a bigger issue now, because Erin and her boyfriend Nick decided to get married.

In July, the Zammetts gathered to celebrate what they hope is a new beginning—for a cancer-free, happy mom Melissa; for Meghan, Erin’s “perfect match” should she need a transplant and perfect  maid of honor. And especially for the bride, Erin.

Erin Zammett: If I can say I’m living with leukemia for the next 75 years, then that’s ok. I’m definitely able to be really happy.

© 2013  Reprints


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments