Etta James Faces Terminal Illness

R & B legend Etta James, 73, has been diagnosed with terminal blood cancer.

Probably best known for her signature song “At Last”, Ms. James has been battling Alzheimer’s Disease since 2009, and last year was hospitalized with a urinary tract infection and prescription drug dependence.

Her physician Dr. Elaine James (no relation) announced that Ms. James has chronic leukemia which can not be cured.

What are the different kinds of blood cells?

Normally, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that develop into mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell. The lymphoid stem cell develops into a white blood cell. The myeloid stem cell develops into one of three types of mature blood cells:

  • Red blood cells that carry oxygen and other materials to all tissues of the body.
  • Platelets that help prevent bleeding by causing blood clots to form.
  • Granulocytes (white blood cells) that fight infection and disease

What is Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia?

Chronic myelogenous leukemia, (also called CML or chronic granulocytic leukemia) is a disease in which the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells. It is a slowly progressing disease that usually occurs during or after middle age.
In CML, too many blood stem cells develop into the type of white blood cell called granulocytes. These granulocytes are abnormal and do not become healthy white blood cells. They may also be called leukemic cells. The leukemic cells can build up in the blood and bone marrow so there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. When this happens, infection, anemia, or easy bleeding may occur.

Possible signs of chronic myelogenous leukemia include tiredness, night sweats, and fever.

These and other symptoms may be caused by CML. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Feeling very tired.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Night sweats.
  • Fever.
  • Pain or a feeling of fullness below the ribs on the left side.

How is CML treated?

Six types of standard treatment are used:

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors are targeted therapy drugs used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia.

A tyrosine kinase inhibitor called imatinib mesylate is used as initial treatment for certain types of chronic myelogenous leukemia in newly diagnosed patients. It blocks an enzyme called tyrosine kinase that causes stem cells to develop into more white blood cells (granulocytes or blasts) than the body needs. Another tyrosine kinase inhibitor called dasatinib is used to treat patients with certain types of CML that have progressed, and is being studied as an initial treatment.


Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Biologic therapy

Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.

High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant

High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant is a method of giving high doses of chemotherapy and replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These re-infused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body’s blood cells.

Donor lymphocyte infusion (DLI)

Donor lymphocyte infusion (DLI) is a cancer treatment that may be used after stem cell transplant. Lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) from the stem cell transplant donor are removed from the donor’s blood and may be frozen for storage. The donor’s lymphocytes are thawed if they were frozen and then given to the patient through one or more infusions. The lymphocytes see the patient’s cancer cells as not belonging to the body and attack them.


Splenectomy is surgery to remove the spleen. The spleen is responsible for the destruction of old red blood cells, filtration and storage of blood, and production of lymphocytes.

For more information about CML, click here to go to the Resounding Health Casebook on the topic.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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