Survivors, stem cell transplants – and a reason to celebrate
May 10, 2013 | by Tami Dennis
The description is simple: Blood and marrow stem cell transplants replace a person's faulty stem cells with healthy ones. The reality is complex: High doses of chemotherapy and radiation must be used to destroy the disease and “make room” for the new, nondiseased stem cells. The immune system is then essentially kick-started to start producing healthy cells on its own.
City of Hope’s numbers belie both: Physicians here have performed more than 11,000 blood and marrow stem cell transplants. Based on a 2012 report from the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research, City of Hope is the only transplant program in the country to achieve eight consecutive reporting years of “over performance” in one-year overall patient survival. Perhaps only those who have been there – and back – can truly understand the significance of this achievement; what’s it’s like to have gotten another chance at life, to have survived not just a life-threatening cancer but the ordeal of the transplant itself. So, once a year, they get a chance to celebrate with the only others who come close to understanding – their transplant doctors, nurses and caregivers. At the annual “Celebration of Life” Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion on Friday, May 10, hundreds of transplant survivors from around the country will convene at City of Hope’s campus. Most will laugh and smile, some will cry, all will remember. There will be hugs, shared camaraderie and a deep appreciation of two new reunions. A Simi Valley boy who just turned 8 and a 63-year-old Woodland Hills man whose parents were Holocaust survivors will both be introduced to the two people, from England and Israel respectively, whose bone marrow donations saved their lives. Through it all will be no small amount of joy – and determination. When asked what makes this program so different – and it is different, in ways both tangible and intangible – Stephen J. Forman, M.D., Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, thought for a moment. Then he said, “We don’t have any results so good they can’t be improved. We’re always thinking: ‘How can we do this better?’ We’re never satisfied.” City of Hope itself is also different, he said. “We’re just big enough to have everything we need – but not so big people get lost in the shuffle.” He added: “Here, we have a commitment to take care of problems now – not ‘in the morning.’” In the video above, Forman describes the progress science has made in treating hematologic cancers and, more important, the progress that has yet to be made – but will be made. As both patients and the hematopoietic cell transplantation team know, even while they’re celebrating their successes, the push for new breakthroughs continues.