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Beating Burkitt Leukemia with Bone Marrow

April is National Donate Life Month. In order to encourage people to register as an eye, organ and tissue donor, and to honor those who have saved lives through the gift of donation, we are sharing the Door County community’s own inspirational donation stories.

Chase - Burkitt Luekemia SurvivorWhen Shelly Krueger describes her son Chase, she describes a normal second grader, a “silly eight-year-old” that likes bugs, snakes and video games. “He’s just a fun, happy little boy,” she adds, “and you’d never know that there was ever anything wrong with him—that he was ever sick. He likes to play and snuggle and have fun with his friends.”

When Chase was three and a half years old he began to complain about pain in his face and jaw. “He would just cry and cry and cry,” Shelly remembers, “he began to lose weight, and he just wasn’t a happy little kid anymore.”  Several weeks after his initial symptoms, Chase was diagnosed with Burkitt Leukemia, a rare form of the disease that usually affects older adults. With Burkitt Leukemia, too many white blood cells, called B lymphocytes, form in the blood and bone marrow. For Chase, an initial eight-month course of chemotherapy was recommended. “That was supposed to be it,” recalls Shelly, but “he finished his chemo…[then] he went back for his check up, they did a bone marrow check and it came back that he was not cancer free.” At this point, it was decided that the best way to keep Chase in remission—to keep him cancer free—was to give him a bone marrow transplant.

According to the United States Health Resources and Services Administration, in 2019 approximately 18,400 people between the ages of 0 and 74 “benefitt[ed] from a potentially life-saving bone marrow…transplant.” Bone marrow transplants help not only those with cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, but also people with blood disorders like aplastic anemia and sickle cell anemia.

There are three types of bone marrow transplants, which come from three different sources: autologous bone marrow transplants, which are donated by the recipient prior to the transplant; allogeneic bone marrow transplants, which are donated by someone other than the transplant recipient; and umbilical cord blood transplants, in which stem cells are removed from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord and given to the recipient.

Regardless of the type of transplant, all transplants involve stem cells. Bone marrow is the soft, spongy and fatty tissue inside your bones, and the stem cells in your bone marrow are the cells that are responsible for creating all the different types of blood cells in your body. Prior to the transplant, the recipient will receive high-dose chemotherapy, radiation or both, with the goal of killing the cancerous cells as well as any of the recipient’s existing bone marrow. The donor’s stem cells are then introduced to the transplant recipient intravenously—like a blood transfusion. The stem cells travel through the blood and find their way to the bones and begin making new healthy blood cells.

One common myth about donating bone marrow is that it is painful and that it requires a surgical procedure. However, while bone marrow donation does sometimes require surgery under general anesthesia, 79% of donations involve harvesting peripheral blood stem cells (PBSCs), a process that requires no surgery whatsoever. Donating bone marrow does involve donating time as well, but it is estimated that the total number of hours involved in the donation process is between twenty and thirty—in other words, it takes roughly one day to help save someone’s life!

Following his second round of chemotherapy, and nearly a year and a half after being diagnosed with Burkitt Leukemia, Chase received his bone marrow transplant at Children’s Hospital, Milwaukee. Shelly notes that Chase was really lucky in that, within three weeks of being placed on the bone marrow registry, numerous perfect matches were found for him. She also looks back on the transplant process itself as being very simple, “It was really nonchalant, like getting a blood transfusion—[in fact] it was really anti-climactic. It took around three hours for the transplant to take place…[and] it happened really slowly because they had to constantly monitor Chase in case his body rejected the transplant, but everything went well!”

Chase - Burkitt Luekemia SurvivorAt this point, Chase has been cancer free for nearly five years and Shelly credits her son’s recovery to the transplant, “It’s the gift of life. I honestly feel that if he hadn’t had the bone marrow transplant, he would not be with us today—it’s amazing…and it means the world to us that he was able to [get the transplant], that somebody was his match and he was able to live because of that.”

Registering to donate bone marrow is easy and only takes about 10 minutes. If you or anyone you know is interested in donating bone marrow, please visit https://bethematch.org/ for more information and to join the registry. Be The Match is operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, which comprises the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world. For additional information visit the United States Health Resources and Services Administration website at https://bloodstemcell.hrsa.gov/. For more general information on organ and tissue donation, please visit https://www.donatelife.net/ndlm/.

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