Elissa Looks to Pay it Forward After AML Journey

Elissa Baldwin poses for a photo in Barcelona while holding up a sign that reads, "Acute Myeloid Leukemia - 5 Years Cancer Free - I'm Cured!"

Elissa Baldwin just heard the words, ‘you’re cured.’

It was the phrase she was yearning to hear for the past five years; a phrase she wasn’t even considering prior to the fall of 2015.

For Elissa, her cancer journey was unexpected and not without obstacles, both physical and mental.

“My early symptoms started with night sweats in October 2015. Soon after, I started bloating and gaining weight rapidly. By January, the bloating was quite painful, so I thought I was having a very long IBS flare-up,” Elissa explained.

Trying to get to the bottom of her discomfort, she ended up making an appointment with a gastroenterologist. A blood test checking for celiac disease or a possible thyroid disorder was performed to determine if either was responsible for her abnormal weight gain.

Everything on the blood test came back normal for Elissa, except her white blood cell count was very low. After a series of more tests with her general practitioner, she was referred to a hematologist for a bone marrow biopsy.

Elissa had been planning a solo trip to Europe for over a year and, without a diagnosis or test results, had a decision to make.

Five days later, while waiting on the results, she chose to go on her trip to Europe.

“The first week of the trip had been going well. I was even walking 10-12 miles per day,” Elissa recalled.

“However, everything changed on June 1st, 2016. I woke up in Lisbon, Portugal to an email with the subject ‘lab results.’ The hematologist said that I had acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and I needed to come home.”

It was a whirlwind of events for Elissa who was immediately referred to OHSU and now had to find a flight home back to Portland all while being put into contact with oncologists at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

Once she arrived back in Portland a few days later, Elissa met with Dr. Elie Traer, a hematologist-oncologist at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, who specializes in AML. Dr. Traer admitted her that day to begin chemotherapy.

“After 32 days on 14K (the 14th floor of OHSU’s Kohler Pavilion), followed by four more consolidation rounds of chemotherapy, I finished treatment in November 2016 and was found to have no evidence of disease on December 13, 2016,” says Elissa.

Regular checkups and blood tests were in store for Elissa following treatment and eventually, she was able to return to work.

“After going through this terrifying journey with AML, I knew I wanted to help the patients who came after me,” said Elissa.

“I am so grateful to OHSU and my amazing care team for saving my life. I’m so excited to be in a position where I’m able to pay it forward.”

In April 2018, Elissa joined the local chapter of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and started managing the Portland Light the Night walk. This past November, she moved to the National Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Patient Education team, where she co-hosts The Bloodline with LLS podcast and helps to produce webinars, videos, and other content to educate patients and caregivers about their disease. Dr. Brian Druker, Director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, and Dr. Traer were both recently featured on her programs.

Then the best news came on August 10, 2021; news that has been six years in the making.

It was the week of her 40th birthday and Elissa received what would turn out to be an unforgettable present.

“During my five-year appointment with Dr. Traer,” Elissa recalled, “he informed me that I am now considered cured of AML.”

What’s next for Elissa?

For starters, there’s a little unfinished business overseas.

“Now that I’m fully vaccinated,” she says, “I plan on going back to Europe to repeat my trip and finish it this time.”