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During her visible career as a hospital administrator, politician, and talk show host, Marjorie O'Neill Clapprood was well-versed in the complex issues involving health care quality and cost.
But it wasn't until she faced her own life-threatening illness – chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) – in 1998 that Clapprood truly understood the ups and downs of the patient experience and the power clinical research has to save lives.
Now, after undergoing experimental chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center, Clapprood is back in the spotlight, lobbying on behalf of cancer research and treatment through fundraising events, meetings with government officials, and informal conversations with anyone who's interested.
"I think there is a reason I've been so fortunate," Clapprood says. "More and more, I'm coming to believe that I'm supposed to tell a story that will end up benefiting others. If it's a story about the journey, I'll tell it. If it's a story about how politically we can come together – Democrats, Republicans, others – around the issue of health care and protecting children and adults, I'll tell it."
Clapprood's first chapter with cancer began shortly after running for U.S. Congress in the late 1990s to succeed Massachusetts Democrat Joe Kennedy. She had already been a hospital VP, served as a state legislator from 1984 to 1990, ran for lieutenant governor, and then became a successful radio and TV talk show host.
Her trademark throaty voice and outgoing, candid style (leaning to the liberal side), were known locally and beyond.
After losing weight during her unsuccessful Congressional campaign, Clapprood came to Dana-Farber for tests and learned of her CLL diagnosis. She recalls a pivotal moment when she and husband Chris Spinazzola were awaiting their appointment and a pack of pediatric patients wearing masks went running by.
"I said to Chris, 'I don't know what I'm worried about," Clapprood recalls. "I've had 40-odd years without cancer, and these kids have had only five or six. I've been blessed with a fabulous life."
Her Dana-Farber doctors advised a "watch-and-wait" approach for this early stage of CLL, so she continued her media work, launched a consulting firm, and supported various charities.
When her disease demanded treatment, Clapprood chose an aggressive chemotherapy regimen that kept the cancer in check for several years. However, she also developed a blood illness called myelodysplastic syndromes, and in the summer of 2007 underwent a reduced-intensity stem cell transplant through Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center, with her sister as the donor.
Reduced-intensity stem cell transplant is a relatively new procedure; the goal is for the donated stem cells to spawn immune system cells that attack the disease. Compared to standard transplants, it is available to a wider range of patients and requires a shorter hospital stay and easier-to-tolerate doses of chemotherapy.
During her recovery, Clapprood avoided travel and exposure to germs for many months, restricting her diet to foods that were, in her words, "canned, frozen, or boiled to death for six hours."
She remembers rejoicing when her Dana-Farber oncologist, Ted Alyea, MD, allowed her grandchildren to kiss her, as long as they were cold-free.
When her husband sent out an email with this news shortly before Thanksgiving, Clapprood says, "My 5-year-old grandson sent back a text: 'Nanny, this is the day I've been praying for – I can kiss your face. I cannot wait!'"
Cancer has forced Clapprood and her husband to recalibrate their priorities, to say "no" to certain charity-related invitations, and spend more time with each other and their family.
This hasn't been easy for Clapprood, who as a state legislator attended activities from dawn to dusk, and as a radio host typically rose at 3 a.m. to be on the air.
She takes anti-rejection and anti-infection medicines daily, exercises regularly, and is working on a book about her life and the desire of each person to feel protected and healthy.
Facing her illness also took Clapprood on an emotional journey from melancholy to defiance. When first diagnosed, she feared – like so many patients – that the life she shared with her loved ones might end sooner than she'd wanted or expected, and she mourned the good health that she had enjoyed for so long.
That sadness evolved into something more positive and constructive.
"This is my new challenge. I'm going to kick this SOB and help other people kick it, too," the 60-year-old Clapprood explains. "My glass has been overflowing, and it's my job to get better and do everything I possibly can to be positive.
"And I think of the kids in the Jimmy Fund Clinic always, always. They're the biggest inspiration to any survivor."
Fall/Winter 2009 Table of Contents