January 10, 2024
In 2022, Becky Jones was travelling with her husband when she noticed she was feeling tired and weak. Brushing off the feeling, she simply chalked it up to jet lag.
“I felt like something was wrong, and I thought it had to do with my heart,” explains Jones. “I was still tired and weak, but when my heart started beating really quickly, I took myself to my local hospital.”
Jones received some assessments at the hospital which determined there were no heart problems. She also received a blood test.
“I wanted to see what was wrong, but up until I received my blood test results, I never thought cancer,” says Jones.
When Jones’ blood test results came back, the results were sent to London and she received a call from the London Regional Cancer Program (LRCP) at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) to meet with the doctor the following week.
“I was diagnosed with leukemia,” Jones shares. “Because of the type of mutation, when discussing treatment options with my doctor, stem cell transplant was always part of the conversation.”
Stem cell transplants
The stem cell program at LHSC has been around for decades.
LHSC is one of six hospitals that offer stem cell transplantation services in Ontario. LHSC currently supports autologous transplants and some allogeneic related donor transplants. Becky Jones received an allogeneic related donor transplant.
Allogeneic related donor transplants use healthy stem cells from the blood of a relative. These stem cells replace bone marrow that is not producing enough healthy blood cells.
The other kind of stem cell donor transplant performed at LHSC, an autologous transplant, uses one’s own healthy blood stem cells to replace bone marrow that is not working as it should be.
To make a stem cell donation, the donor’s blood is collected and spun in a machine that separates the stem cells from the rest of the blood components. The stem cell layer gets diverted into a collection bag, while the rest of the blood components are returned to the person immediately through a closed-loop system. This process usually takes about 4 hours. These collected stem cells can be used immediately in the case of an allogeneic transplant, or frozen and stored for future use if it is a self-donation (autologous transplant).
Stem cell transplants are often the only treatment for those with blood cancer or blood diseases. Stem cell transplantation can provide lasting remission and can save those patients by giving them a new immune system.
The donation process
“When I first got the results of my blood test, I was shocked,” Jones explains. “Things then went quickly from there with appointments and the doctor laying out the plan over the next few months.”
Jones went into hospital for a month for chemotherapy, then received chemotherapy as an outpatient for two weeks following. As this was happening, they were looking for a stem cell donor. First, they talked to Jones’ siblings to see if they were a match, and also planned to check the national donor registry for a stem cell match.
“It was a lot of information to take in but the doctors were great,” Jones says. “The care team was really supportive and answered any questions we had. They made me feel secure in my decision to move forward with a stem cell transplant. I knew they were specialized and have done this procedure many times before.”
Jones’ twin sister and brother were both perfect matches. After evaluating both, it was decided that stem cells from her brother Dale would give her the best chance for a successful transplant and recovery.
“When finding out I was a match for Becky, I felt complete joy coupled with a strong sense of responsibility and conviction,” Dale says.
The donation process took several hours, and throughout that time, Dale was cared for to ensure the process continued smoothly. “Whatever my endeavor was to be, it paled in comparison to the battle Becky was fighting. I would have done what I did a thousand times if necessary,” Dale says.
Once Dale’s donation was complete, it was time for Jones to receive those stem cells.
“The transplant took about an hour and a half. I was awake the whole time and had my husband there for support which made the process much easier,” Jones shares.
Once the transplantation was done, Jones stayed in hospital while her hemoglobin, platelet, neutrophils and white blood cell counts went back up. After she was discharged, she started with weekly check-up appointments, then an appointment every other month and now every three months.
“I feel really great now”
Jones only needed one transplant and now just has to attend regular check-up appointments. She shares, “I feel really great now – back to how I felt before I got sick.”
Jones notes how fortunate she feels to have a brother who never hesitated to help when he was told he was a match. As siblings, they have always been close, but now she believes they share an even deeper bond because of this experience. “Since the very beginning when I was told that I would need a stem cell transplant, he was convinced that he would be the one to do it! He was extremely happy that he could provide me with life-saving stem cells and did all of the things necessary, including a bone marrow test and injections to produce stem cell excess. It was a very selfless and heroic thing to do for me.”
Dale is happy that his sister is doing so well. “I am proud of her strength and I am very thankful that I was able to be a part of her journey.”
Jones is also grateful for the excellent care she received and for having this specialized care so close to home. “I am thankful for this great team. Because we didn’t have to travel far, my husband was able to visit me every day. I know that having him by my side to support helped in my recovery.”