Milestone dates hold a special place in our lives, signifying new beginnings and important moments. Early on, I remember eagerly writing down my college acceptance letter, graduation date, and first real job in my journal, with a green marker highlighting the page edges for future reference.
Little did I know that these milestone journals would soon transform into a two-decade chronicle of cancer diagnoses, treatments, and scans. Just two and half years after celebrating my college graduation, I found myself in an oncologist’s office receiving the devastating diagnosis of a rare form of Hodgkin Lymphoma. This cancer diagnosis at 24 years old was a milestone date for me forever etched into my mind and was followed by four others at ages 31, 35, 38 (until 41) and 42-43. The pages of my journal, once adorned with green lines of optimism, now contained words like rare, incurable, stage 4, chemotherapy, bone marrow metastases and transplant.
In July 2013, at age 43, my options were dwindling and my only hope was believed to be a bone marrow transplant. After meeting with my oncologist, he encouraged me to visit research hospitals because they “have more tools in their toolbox” for a case as complex as mine.
My husband Jeff and I consulted with two research hospitals, both suggesting a haploidentical transplant. This type of transplant uses healthy cells from a half-matched donor (usually a family member) to replace the unhealthy ones in the patient. However, there were challenges in my case. My siblings and I only share our mother and their age exceeded the ideal donor range of 18 to 35 by more than a decade. Despite these obstacles, we embarked on the genetic testing process for my siblings, hoping for a match. Two out of three siblings turned out to be a match, and it was up to the doctor to determine whose markers were the best suited for my transplant.
Then in August, a phone call from the cancer center brought a new option to light. They informed me about a clinical trial comparing the effectiveness of the haploid transplant to that of a double umbilical cord blood stem cell transplant. I was unaware cord blood collected at birth could be used to save lives. The idea of a cord blood stem cell transplant offered the promise of a new, clean immune system - a precious gift for someone whose own immune system had endured so much trauma!
Just a week before my hospital visit, I received the call I had been eagerly awaiting. I was randomly selected to receive a double umbilical cord blood stem cell transplant. This meant my sibling wouldn’t have to go through the painful process of bone marrow harvesting, and I would be blessed with a healthy, new immune system.
On December 3, 2013, after a week of treatments, I received infusions of two unrelated umbilical cord blood stem cells, each measuring only about one-quarter cup. Then on December 27, the very day I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma 19 years prior, a blood test revealed I was 100% grafted to Baby A, as I affectionately referred to her.
After nearly two decades of battling cancer—
over 40 scans, 30 radiation treatments,
15 types of chemotherapy drugs and
more than 70 blood transfusions—
I was truly cancer free! All thanks to a cord blood stem cell transplant.
Need to Know More
The success of my transplant piqued my curiosity, prompting me to delve deeper into cord blood research. To my surprise, I discovered that cord blood was an FDA-approved treatment for over 80 different diseases, not just cancer.
Now if you recall, my donors were unrelated and sourced from public cord blood banks. I didn’t realize that there was a possibility no matches would be found for me. My doctor had to go to a German cord blood bank to find a second match for me.
Further research revealed that families can choose to private bank their cord blood, creating a safety net in case of future needs. This safety net extends to the newborn's siblings and parents. Ongoing clinical trials were and still are exploring cord blood treatments for autoimmune diseases, blood disorders, and regenerative diseases—many of which run in our family and have for generations. The field of cord blood research has progressed rapidly since the first cord blood stem cell transplant in 1988, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Protecting the Family
My thoughts turned to my niece Lisa, who was expecting her second child, a little girl named Ava. As one of my biggest supporters throughout my two-decade-long cancer journey, Lisa witnessed firsthand the toll this insidious disease took on my quality of life. She also saw how a cord blood stem cell transplant restored my health.
A few months before her due date, I shared the information about private cord blood banking with Lisa. She realized that she couldn’t afford to miss out on the opportunity to privately bank her newborn’s cord blood.
Nearly 10 years post transplant, my journals are filled with new, joyous milestones and cherished memories. I am immensely grateful for the additional time cord blood continues to give me and the safety net it provides for my niece and her little family. I hope she will never need to use it, but it brings me comfort knowing that Ava's cord blood is safely stored in the Cryo-Cell laboratory.
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