A little over a year ago one of my aunts was diagnosed with leukaemia, and in order to save her life, had to undergo a bone marrow transplant, or what is now called stem cell transplant. Suffice it to say, she took the news a lot better than her two grown sons did. Those young men practically went out of their minds when she shared her diagnosis, for their mother is the backbone of their family.
Finding a donor was the easy part, as her elder son was a 50 per cent match, and, although it took some doing, the hospital was able to find a match from donated umbilical cord blood. I say easy, because what followed was a series of ups and downs that put the Kingda Ka roller coaster ride to shame. Her Allogeneic stem cell transplant journey was one that has changed her life forever. "In this type of transplant, stem cells are taken from a matching donor. Donors may include a relative or family member, unrelated individual, or saved umbilical cord blood. To determine if a donor’s stem cells are the right match, the patient undergoes a human leukocyte antigens (HLA) test. In an HLA test, we compare the patient’s blood and tissue type with blood samples from the donor," explained cancercentre.com.
"Before a stem cell transplant for leukaemia, you will undergo a conditioning regimen, which involves intensive treatment to destroy as many leukaemia cells as possible. You may receive high doses of chemotherapy and, in some cases, radiation therapy. You may also receive reduced-intensity conditioning (a “mini-allogeneic transplant”), which uses lower, less toxic doses of chemotherapy and/or total body irradiation (TBI) before the transplant." The high doses of chemotherapy certainly got rid of the cancer cells, but at a cost. Her entire immune system was destroyed, forcing her to live in a virtual bubble. Then there was the unbearable pains – headaches, backaches, joint pains – nausea, weakness, among a number of other complications. But as devastated as they were, the boys weathered the storm for her.
The transplant was deemed a success, and during her prolonged hospital stay, they worked out a schedule that revolved around what she needed, even if it meant taking time off from college to be there for her. When she was allowed to go home, they morphed into versions of her, keeping the house spotless and as germ free as possible because they knew the slightest of infections could easily take her away from them. They made sure she ate, took her meds, slept, kept her follow-up appointments, limited visitors, everything the doctors ordered – everything she was used to doing for them. Despite all their efforts, though, there were many scary rush-her-to-the-hospital moments which almost broke their spirits. Almost.
When I finally got the opportunity to visit her, I was in shock at the woman she had become physically. She had lost all her hair, a lot of weight, was frail and a shade of pale I never knew existed. I could tell she had changed emotionally and spiritually too. It was like the new cells had transformed her into a warmer, stronger person. We talked about the nightmare that was her experience, while she sorted through a bagful of pills to put in her pillbox. She said had it not been for her husband and the boys, she would not have made it. But as far as I could see, had it not been for her, she would not have made it.
She was the one who sacrificed to give her children a better life than she had. She worked as hard as necessary, and then some, so they always had food, clothes, a home, toys, a healthy social life, got a good education. She pushed for scholarships, taught them to be kind and generous. She is the model of respect, strength, hard work and independence. She showed them that it is okay to ask for and accept help when the circumstances demand it.
And as I was gently reminded that she needed to go have lunch so she could take her meds before getting some rest, I was more convinced than ever that those boys were just living what they were exposed to over their lifetime.