College professor and mother Christine Chen looked forward to hugging a person she had never met — a stem cell donor who had given her a second chance at life after she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
“I just wanted to thank him and give him a big hug in person,” said Chen, 44, mother of Kai, 6, and Mika, 4. “I wanted him to know that there is a family he did this for, too.”
City of Hope’s virtual 46th Annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion took place on October 14 and featured an emotional meeting between Chen and her donor, Andrew Qin, 32, a Portland, Oregon, software engineer.
In January 2020, Chen was diagnosed with AML. But her cancer journey had started two years earlier. Just minutes after delivering Mika on Jan. 11, 2018, doctors noticed a large mass in her abdomen that Chen described as the size of a watermelon. The Santa Fe, New Mexico, resident immediately received an ultrasound and a computed tomography scan. Later, a biopsy revealed a rare desmoid tumor.
“Hours after Mika was born, my husband was looking up mortality statistics,” said Chen, a St. John’s College professor of philosophy. “We were in a cancer center 12 hours after Mika was born.”
Chen received six rounds of aggressive chemotherapy outside of City of Hope and participated in a clinical trial, shrinking the tumor to the size of a small pickle. About two years after that initial diagnosis, she learned that the aggressive chemotherapy had likely caused her to develop AML, a rare occurrence. She was determined not to leave her young children motherless.
In early 2020, Chen came to City of Hope, one of the largest cancer research and treatment organizations in the United States, to receive treatment from internationally recognized hematologist Stephen J. Forman, M.D., director of City of Hope’s Hematologic Malignancies Research Institute. She received a new therapeutic regimen to treat this type of AML that put her in remission. But she would need a stem cell transplant to achieve a cure.
“Bone marrow and stem cell donors such as Andrew provide lifesaving donations that we appreciate so profoundly to patients with blood cancers,” Forman said. “Despite there being lockdowns at the height of the pandemic, there are countless stories of donors who put aside their concerns to help a patient in need.”
“Such lifesaving procedures were also possible during the pandemic thanks to City of Hope’s doctors, nurses and medical staff who cared for our patients without any hesitation,” Forman added.
City of Hope’s BMT Program
City of Hope’s BMT program has performed nearly 18,000 transplants, making it one of the largest and most successful programs in the nation. City of Hope is the only cancer center in the nation to exceed transplant outcome expectations for 15 consecutive years.
Over the years, City of Hope has also helped pioneer several BMT innovations. In addition to being one of the first institutions to successfully perform BMTs in older adults, it was one of the first programs to show that BMTs could be safely performed for patients with HIV. City of Hope has also had growing success with nonrelated matched donors and, most recently, half-matched family donors.
Building on its BMT expertise, City of Hope is also a pioneer in the development of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells to treat cancer. Nearly 1,000 patients have been treated with CAR T cell therapy at City of Hope, which is also testing how this form of cancer immunotherapy can help patients have a more successful transplant.
Qin’s Lifesaving Donation
A few years before Qin donated, Be The Match had a donor drive at his company. After learning that a bone marrow or stem cell donation could save a life, he decided to join the registry. Then, like many donors, he forgot he had joined until he received a phone call in early 2020.
Qin said he only knew that a “40-something” patient with cancer needed his stem cells. Chen’s siblings were not matches for Chen, but Qin, though unrelated, was a perfect match. In May 2020, as the nation grappled with COVID-19 lockdowns, Qin answered the call to donate stem cells.
“Be The Match said that there was someone who matched my genetic profile and, because we were both Asian American, it would be hard for them to find another donor,” said Qin, referring to how only 9% of donors identifying as Asian American and Pacific Islander are in the Be The Match bone marrow donor registry. “It was a no-brainer. It was just a little physical discomfort for me, but it could potentially save someone else's life.”
Because Qin didn’t live close to a stem cell donation center, he drove three hours to Seattle to donate.
On May 19, 2020, Chen received Qin’s stem cells.
“We had received so much bad news up until then, so to know that someone went out of their way to donate turned a dark moment into a moment of light,” Chen said.
In the weeks following her transplant, Chen could only speak to her family virtually. But City of Hope’s doctors, nurses and other medical staff made sure she never felt alone.
“Dr. Forman came by every morning to check in on me,” she said. “Even though we couldn’t have visitors, it felt like there was always someone there.”
Thanks to Qin’s donation, Chen’s cancer went into lasting remission. She recently traveled to Puerto Rico to celebrate her husband’s grandfather’s 104th birthday and has returned to playing violin professionally, as well as coaching Kai’s soccer team. She taught classes part time during her treatment and is almost back to teaching full time.
“Without Andrew’s donation, none of this was guaranteed in my life,” Chen said. “My family and I are forever grateful that he put aside any concerns he had about COVID-19 or the donation process to donate to a person he had never met. He will forever be a part of our family.”
To join the Be The Match, more information can be found here.