In the United States, someone receives a blood cancer diagnosis every three minutes. For many of them, a blood or marrow transplant is the only hope for a cure. But more than two-thirds of these patients don't have a matched marrow donor in the family. Donor registries offer them the best hope for finding a match.
Hilary Jacobs considered herself extremely healthy until she noticed large bruises on her skin, spots on her legs, and sore ankles. She knew something wasn't right and at the encouragement of her family, went to the doctor. Her doctor referred her to Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), where she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). In MDS, cancer keeps the bone from producing enough healthy blood cells. To have a chance against the disease, Hilary needed a bone marrow transplant. This began what she calls "a very interesting adventure."
Paul Shami, an HCI hematologist, says, "We always try to do a transplant [for patients with MDS] because that is the best, if not the only chance, we have of curing them."
It usually takes at least six months to find a matching unrelated bone marrow donor. Hilary had chemotherapy to keep her cancer at bay while she waited for a match. Hilary considers herself fortunate, because the HCI team found a donor in less than three months. She says, "It was very exciting. I cried. I did a lot of cheering."
The transplant was a success, but recovery was hard on Hilary's body and her state of mind. Gradually, her strength returned. Two years after her transplant, she decided to run a marathon and hasn't stopped running since then. She qualified for the Boston Marathon and ran it two years in a row. Hilary credits her achievement to the team at HCI and her "incredible" donor.
She also makes an interesting analogy between her treatment and a well-known story. On her first day of treatment, Hilary realized her three doctors had similar personalities to the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion from The Wizard of Oz. During her first chemotherapy infusion, she pictured herself as Dorothy, taking that first step on the yellow brick road. She says, "I thought, I'm going on all kinds of adventures. Some are going to be really scary, and some are going to be amazing, and it's all going to be extraordinary."
Dr. Shami (who she compared to the lion) says Hilary is a great example of transplant success, but the need for more donors of bone marrow and blood continues. Donor registries expand the pool of possible matches for patients who need a transplant. Patients no longer have to rely solely on the match of a sibling donor. "Having a donor becomes literally a life-saving situation," says Shami.
Find out if you can be the match that saves someone's life. To learn more about becoming a marrow or blood donor, visit www.bethematch.com.
Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit www.huntsmancancer.org.