“The awareness of my mortality and appreciation of my physical health has changed everything for me,” said Rachel, marrow transplant recipient.
Rachel had a bright future ahead of her. She had recently graduated with a master’s degree in education and started a new job as a first grade teacher. She was dating her future husband, Eli, and was living a vibrant life in New York. Despite all the positive things going on in her life, she started to feel worn down.
“I was feeling very exhausted and everyone was saying ‘It makes sense that working and going to school wore you out – your body needs to rest from all of the stress!’” said RacheI. “I thought that was probably what was going on.”
This assumption quickly changed when Rachel’s acupuncturist noticed something off about her. She told Rachel that she was showing symptoms of anemia and should check in with her physician. Rachel made an appointment with her doctor, went in for some blood work, and then carried on with life as usual, with some apprehension as she waited for the results.
The day that changed Rachel’s life forever began normally – she went to work, and then out with a friend. It wasn’t until that night when she noticed numerous missed calls from her doctor. She called back and was told she was very anemic and needed to come see her doctor first thing in the morning.
The following morning, Rachel’s doctor explained that her blood counts were abnormal. She told her to go home and pack an overnight bag, and explained that if they couldn’t get her in to see a hematologist that day, she would need to go to the emergency room. Rachel didn’t hear the word “cancer” until a hematologist/oncologist called to tell her that there was a bed waiting for her in the hospital and she would be admitted that afternoon.
“I had known subconsciously for so long that something was wrong, but I was shocked and confused,” Rachel said.
At 27 years old, Rachel learned that she had acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
Rachel spent a total of six weeks in the hospital for several rounds of chemotherapy. Ultimately, it was determined that the best possible outcome for the specific type of AML that Rachel had would be a marrow transplant.
Tanya, Rachel’s older sister, was typed in the hope that she was a match. But like so many patients suffering with blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, Rachel did not have a marrow match in her family. That’s when her doctors turned to the Be The Match Registry® to find her life-saving match.
Across the country, in California, lived Rachel’s second chance at life: her donor Tamar. Tamar joined the registry at a marrow drive organized for her boyfriend who had Hodgkin lymphoma. Tamar was not a match for her boyfriend, but remained on the registry. Several years passed and Tamar forgot that she’d even joined the registry when she received the call about a patient who needed her marrow.
“I felt like it was an absolute no-brainer to go through the screening and potentially donate my marrow. I would want someone to do the same for me if I was sick. I also learned more about the statistics of finding a match, and how rare it is when someone finds a perfect match. I couldn’t not do it,” Tamar said.
While Tamar moved forward with donation, Rachel underwent chemotherapy and radiation to prepare her so her body would be ready to receive Tamar’s life-saving marrow. Through all this, Rachel’s supportive friends and family provided critical emotional support and assured her of the love that surrounded her. And while her family worked hard to stay strong for her during such a trying time, Rachel also proved to be a calm presence for her family, even though she was fighting for her life.
“I have incredible admiration for my sister,” Tanya said. “She moved through her illness with such incredible grace. She was so accepting of her diagnosis and never once said, ‘Why me? Why did this happen to me?’ I never saw her go through a period of denial. Rachel fought the illness but not the reality of what was happening.”
Rachel finally received her marrow transplant only months after being diagnosed. The transplant was a success, and she was incredibly relieved when she was finally well enough to leave the hospital. “The first day I was back in my parent’s apartment, just walking around, feeling the hardwood floors beneath my feet, I thought it was the best thing ever,” said Rachel.
The months that followed were difficult as her body worked to accept her new immune system. Rachel experienced graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD), a condition that occurs when marrow attacks its recipient. This resulted in several more months of additional treatments and hospitalizations.
Rachel began communicating with Tamar about a year-and-a-half after her transplant, and soon they decided to meet for the first time. Rachel struggled with how to express her gratitude to Tamar during their first meeting. She tried thinking of gifts to give her, but nothing she could buy or make felt just right. She finally decided to do the only thing that made sense to communicate the depth of her gratitude to Tamar.
Before meeting with Tamar, Rachel asked family and friends to write personal notes to her marrow donor. At their first meeting, Rachel gave the notes to Tamar in a jar. That night, Tamar read each note, and was incredibly overwhelmed by the gratitude and loving messages she read.
“Whenever I feel really down in the dumps, I empty the jar and read all the notes. It makes me remember that I saved a life, that Rachel might not be here without me, and that I have a purpose and made an impact,” said Tamar. “Other than having my daughter, being a donor is the thing I am most proud of in my life.”
Their experience with Rachel’s illness has inspired Susan and Don, Rachel’s parents, to give back. They recognize the need for more registry members of varied ethnic backgrounds, and that patients with rare genetic typing have greater difficulties finding a match. Susan and Don set out to raise funds to help these patients by creating a Team Be The Match page in Tamar’s honor.
“We felt incredible gratitude for the gift of life Rachel received and we wanted as many others as possible to have the same opportunity,” said Susan.
Rachel has also given back by participating in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team-In-Training program. She also trained as a health coach so that she could support other young adult cancer survivors transition into living well after cancer.
Rachel continues to work with students but has shifted her focus since her illness. “Since I’ve returned to teaching I’ve found that I am most interested in the inner lives of my students and the teachers with whom I work. I am passionate about teachers and students learning the tools of self-awareness and connection so that they can live well and appreciate life in the moment.”