Fighting Cancer with Miracles

John and Joan Cottam .

Currently, a new cancer center is being erected on the River Road Campus of Intermountain Dixie Regional Medical Center as part of the hospital expansion and consolidation. The world-renowned Intermountain Cancer Genomics program is also located in St. George. Cancer Genomic researchers are studying DNA to find medications that target specific forms of cancer. Miracles happen daily for cancer patients in our community and throughout the world.

John and Joan Cottam have experienced many miracles during their ongoing journey with cancer. The Cottams moved to Dixie full time in 2012. They moved from Southern California where they raised their six children – three girls and three boys. The Cottams are busy, active grandparents to 20 grandchildren. In 2014, John Cottam moved his manufacturing business, Industrial Brush Corporation, to St. George.

The Cottams are also active in their new community. John serves on the Intermountain Dixie Regional Community Development Board. Together John and Joan have been great supporters of the hospital. In fact, Joan was attending the Jubilee of Trees Gala when she first received the phone call from her doctor that began her cancer story.

“I always considered myself an energetic grandma,” said Joan Cottam. “All my life I have been an extremely healthy and active woman – running marathons, biking, and hiking. But last spring, on a 25-mile hike, I had to keep stopping to rest which was so not like me. I then developed a smothering feeling in my chest that I kept ignoring. By late fall, I was having a hard time climbing the stairs in my home. I finally decided to see my primary care physician.”

During a routine blood test, the doctor discovered that Joan was severely anemic. Her blood count was so extremely low that she had to leave the Gala early and go to the emergency room for a blood transfusion. After, Joan felt like a new woman, and even modeled in the Jubilee Fashion Show the following week.

Over the next few weeks, Joan had more blood transfusions, and more tests. By mid-December, Joan’s energy level was dragging and her health was spiraling downward. It was a gastroenterologist, Dr. Lloyd Perino, who really got the ball rolling in the right direction toward a diagnosis when he ordered a full hematology work up. After being admitted to the hospital for more tests and blood draws, a bone marrow biopsy finally confirmed their worst fears – cancer.

“We were hoping for a quick diagnosis of something treatable,” said John Cottam. “That is exactly what we got. Joan was diagnosed with Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia (WM), a rare form of lymphoma or blood cancer. It is a very slow-growing disease that could have started years ago. There are about 1,500 cases each year in the U.S., so about three in every million people get it.”

The Cottams know it was a miracle to get such a swift diagnosis of something so rare and it was another miracle that a Dixie oncologist, Dr. Karen Lin, had previous experience with the disease. It is also an amazing miracle that this type of cancer, while not curable, is very treatable and manageable (similar to a chronic disease such as diabetes).

“One of the markers of Waldenstrom’s,” said John Cottam, “is an overabundance of IgM antibodies in the blood. Joan’s count was off the charts. It was the highest level any of our oncologists had ever seen or heard about. They said she won a blue ribbon for the most IgM(s). This also meant that Joan’s blood was as thick as sludge and put her at extreme risk for a heart attack or stroke. Fortunately, that did not occur, and I count that as a miracle and a great blessing.”

Still another miracle, is that the plasmapheresis “miracle machine” Joan needed to filter and remove the excess IgM antibodies in her blood, had recently become available at Dixie Regional Medical Center. This meant that Joan could receive immediate and sometimes weekly treatments close to home.

“When I was admitted to the hospital,” said Joan Cottam, “I was sicker than I had ever been in my life with no clue what was wrong with me. Within a day, my diagnosis had been determined and immediate treatment followed. I was home for Christmas. It was truly a miracle.”

The Cottams will never forget December of 2016. “Although blood cancer was NOT what I would have chosen for my Christmas gift,” Joan Cottam said, “somehow I feel blessed. It could have been so much worse. I witnessed the miracles of modern medicine and received gifts of love, support, and compassion from my family and friends – and I can live with that and my Waldenstrom’s with support from Dixie Regional’s Cancer Program.”

If I had to pick my cancer, this one I’d choose,
I’ve had no pain, not a hair I did lose!
Although no cure, I feel blessed for sure.
Miracles, modern medicines, so much more!
It’s easy to manage and easy to treat.
My Waldonstrom’s I will defeat!
 By Joan Cottam, diagnosed Dec. 16, 16

One in every three women is at risk of developing a form of cancer during her lifetime. For men, the chance is one in two. Experts are continually searching for cures and new ways to treat and manage cancer. Now is a remarkable time to be fighting cancer, especially in southern Utah.