Mother of four, Deb Martell fought breast cancer and won only to discover nine years later that she had developed leukemia (AML). Cord blood saved her life.
Part 4 in our #WeCanICan: Beat Cancer with Cord Blood series, in association with World Cancer Day
Life is so simple. You are born. You go to school. You meet someone nice, get married, have a few kids. . . and boom! Cancer.
Cancer does not discriminate. It can pick on anyone and at any time. Originally from Wisconsin, Deb Martell moved to Denver in 1997 with her family. She was 36 years old at the time and a proud mother of four adorable children aged (4, 6, 9 & 11). Life was moving along nicely and very busy due to the move. So, you can imagine how shocked Deb was when she learned she had breast cancer just two months after the move.
Deb’s doctors moved quickly to put her on a hard course of chemotherapy. They also performed an autologous transplant (using her own stem cells), considered a radical treatment in the late 90’s. The treatment saved her life but also damaged her body severely. In particular, the harsh chemo treatment would prove to have a potentially fatal long-term side effect. Everyone knew there was a risk of this but Deb knew she was facing a life or death choice. She followed her doctor’s advice and won a second chance at life. She won the battle against breast cancer!
Fast forward nine years. . . Deb was enjoying her new life and so grateful to have beaten breast cancer. She and her family had moved again. Now, they were living in Wisconsin. The kids were growing up fast. Her oldest was now 20. The youngest was 13. All were keeping her busy with school runs, getting everyone to afterschool activities like hockey and soccer and volunteering at the church.
This was 2007 and Deb had just returned from dropping her second son off at college. She knew something was wrong. She felt incredibly weak. She made an appointment with her doctor. They drew some blood and realized that she needed two units immediately. A bone marrow biopsy was ordered for the next day. Deb was told that she had been diagnosed with AML (Acute Myeloid Leukaemia). It was serious.
As the testing progressed, her doctor realized that she also had a “Chromosome 7 Abnormality” which most likely developed following the heavy chemotherapy she received back in 1998. The intense chemo treatment had saved her life but forever altered her body. The fact remained that now she had leukemia and required immediate treatment. The doctor advised her to check into the hospital that same day so that she could start a week of chemo in preparation for a stem cell transplant. They would start looking for a bone marrow donor immediately.
Deb immediately thought of her kids, “What? . . . but I can’t. Not today. I have to pick up my kids, make arrangements, I can’t just drop everything and start chemo.” Yes, the realities of motherhood often do not line up with the realities of the medical world. Deb did her best.
She quickly organized the necessary logistics for her children and made calls out to everyone to see if they could be a possible bone marrow donor. Everyone stepped into action. A network of family and friends was set up on Caring Bridge. Deb started chemo that weekend.
Deb’s doctors St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee had hoped that her brother would be a possible match for a bone marrow stem cell transplant. However, the criteria for a bone marrow transplant are strict and sadly he was not a match. Was there another option? Deb was desperate.
A hero emerged. . . Dr. Robert Taylor at St. Luke’s recommended she speak with a colleague of his who was doing exciting work using cord blood to fight cancer. This one conversation would save her life. Deb is grateful to this day that Dr. Taylor truly explored all options. He thought out of the box and put her in touch with Dr. Claudio Brunstein at the University of Minnesota – Fairview Hospital.
Deb met with Dr. Brunstein and the decision was made that a cord blood stem cell transplant would be her best hope for survival. The matching process would be easier than for bone marrow and hopefully they would only need one cord since she was considered a relatively small adult in terms of weight and height. The search began.
Deb proceeded with the chemo treatment and began to prepare her body for the transplant. She started to have numerous adverse reactions and issues with platelet transfusions because of the many antibodies in her system. The Blood Center of Wisconsin did an amazing job of finding the specific HLA matched platelets she needed.
Good news . . . Dr. Brunstein had found a cord blood donation that matched! Not only did it meet the basic criteria for matching, it exceeded it. The cord could have come from anywhere in the world but in Deb’s case it was found in the US which made logistics much easier. That donation turned out to be a 6 to 6 antigen match! Dr. Brunstein and his team also said that it was the largest cord blood collection they had ever seen. That meant that they would not need a second one. One would be enough!
Deb received her cord blood transplant on December 18th, 2007. She ended up staying in the hospital for a total of 36 days and then a local apartment for 3 months during which time she was separated from her family as they continued with school and work. However, her recovery progressed nicely. She did not suffer any problems with Graft versus Host Disease (another benefit of using cord blood instead of bone marrow). Her blood type changed from A+ to O+ and she developed an allergy to cashews. Overall, she made a quick recovery and her doctors were very impressed saying that she was an “exceptional cancer patient.”
This past December, Deb celebrated her 9th birthday. Yes, it has been 9 years and she is cancer free! As you can imagine, Deb takes nothing for granted in life. She wakes up every morning and follows a routine filled with gratitude and healthy choices. “I thank God every morning for my very breath and the blessing it is to live another day. My day starts with prayer and thanksgiving and coffee with coconut oil and raw honey! Followed by my workout (usually),” she says.
Indeed, the experience has taught her and her family to be grateful for so much. Her fight against cancer has also influenced her kids in choices they have made. . . one becoming a lawyer, another a nurse. All of them are intent on making the world a better place. Deb and her family say now that they “don’t look at problems that other people see and give up. We try to learn from those problems.”
Thanks to cord blood, Deb was given another chance at life. Thanks to this valuable medical resource, she has been able to attend graduations, watch her kids blossom, enjoy the outdoors (love this photo of her kayaking!), work part-time . . . she is living and loving life!!
What is Deb’s advice to other cancer patients?
- Be grateful. Take nothing for granted!
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle post-treatment. Deb keeps a non-toxic home as much as possible. Her goal every day is to protect and build her immune system. She eats gluten-free, corn-free, non-processed foods, . . . She stays health through choices that she makes daily.
- One of her favorite rituals which she highly recommends is making a morning smoothie. Deb shared her recipe with us. Looks yummy!
Cord blood is an incredible medical resource. Since 1988, there have been more than 35,000 cord blood transplants worldwide. Far from science-fiction, cord blood is currently used to treat over 80 diseases including sickle cell anemia, lymphoma and leukemia. Cord blood is also proving key for exciting research in regenerative medicine to potentially treating things like autism, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, diabetes. . .
Learn more about how cord blood is used to fight cancer by meeting others whose lives have been saved thanks to cord blood. Discover the full #WeCanICan: Beat Cancer with Cord Blood series (in World Cancer Day).