When she was only 15, Christine Pechera donated marrow to her brother, who had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for a bone marrow transplant. Soon after, her sister also was diagnosed with the same disease. Her sister survived, but her brother died; and as if that were not hard enough for her family, only six years ago, Pechera herself was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
After her own autologous bone marrow transplant failed to eliminate her cancer, a second transplant with marrow from a matching, unrelated donor was her only hope. The National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) offered no suitable match — but her eventual donor was found an ocean away: a Chinese man from Hong Kong who had registered as a potential donor because his wife survived cancer.
On April 25, 36-year-old Pechera finally will get to meet her donor — 39-year-old Kam Tsuen “Kent” Wong — who will fly from Hong Kong to be part of a press conference at the 32nd annual “Celebration of Life” Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation Reunion at City of Hope.
This annual rite of spring on the Duarte campus is expected to attract thousands of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation recipients, their donors, family members, friends and medical staff.
“It’s gratifying to see our Celebration of Life event grow larger each year,” said Stephen J. Forman, M.D., the Francis and Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation and chair of the Division of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation. “It is a great reflection of the advances we have made in treating hematological cancers, but it also reminds us of the strides we still need to make to cure this disease.”
Forman will take part in a morning press conference and later emcee the event’s program.
During her search for a donor, Pechera, who is Filipina, appeared in an ABC “Nightline” television segment that chronicled the need for more minorities to register with the NMDP. She also took her search to the Web with a YouTube video. Ordinarily, the odds of matching an unrelated donor are between one in 100 and one in a million. Currently, minorities only make up about 25 percent of potential donors in the NMDP, so the odds of finding a matching unrelated donor are slim for patients in these groups.
Pechera traces her resilience to her family, particularly her mother, who despite seeing three of her four children stricken with cancer, is “not bitter or angry at the world. She’s happy that I’m alive and my sister is alive,” Pechera said.
Pechera also continues to be inspired by her late brother, Francis Rex, who dreamed of being a pediatric oncologist, but feared that dying so young he would be forgotten. “If I don’t make it,” he told his sister, “you’ll have to live for the both of us.”
Wong’s gift has enabled not only Pechera, but also her brother, to live on.