“No! You only have weeks to a month to live.” A shocking response! We had just wanted to know whether we could go home and think about beginning the extreme treatment the oncologist was suggesting.
The next day we dutifully reported to the hospital to begin in-patient chemotherapy treatment for the mantle cell lymphoma that had invaded my husband Don’s blood, lymph nodes and bone marrow. Upon diagnosis, his cancer was already at Stage 4.
Thus began an unexpected pilgrimage that entailed learning a new language of medical terms and procedures, and embracing a lifestyle drastically different than what we previously ever could have imagined. Our focus and all our energy and prayers now were directed toward combating this intrusive, devastating disease. Aggressive treatments were being suggested for an aggressive cancer. Harsh chemotherapy that could only be administered in a hospital was to be followed with a stem-cell transplant.
When we first heard “stem-cell transplant” the thing that came to mind was how could we participate in something that resulted from the killing of embryos, preborn babies? Embryonic stem cells had been in the news, so that was what initially registered with us. At that point, we had no idea any other stem-cell therapies even existed.
We weren’t alone. Post-transplant, there have been times when intelligent, faithful, engaged Catholics have challenged whether we can still be good Catholics after taking part in a stem-cell transplant. To them, “stem cell” equates to “embryonic.”
Thankfully, we discovered that the procedure being proposed for Don used adult stem cells. In fact, it was determined that after “cleansing” his body, blood and bone marrow with intensely toxic chemotherapy, his own stem cells would be harvested, frozen and then put back in his blood.
During Don’s recovery, we had the opportunity to meet firsthand many other cancer survivors through various support group meetings. Some of those who attended were not able to use their own stem cells. Those who had leukemia or multiple myeloma often did not have that option. These stem-cell transplant patients had to be matched with donors who had signed up and had their blood and bone marrow tested in order to help others. Many of these donors were members of the military, we were told.
Other patients we met along the way were given stem-cell treatments that used “cord blood” saved from the umbilical cords left over from childbirth. Even with near-perfect matches, the risk of donor-host disease was great, but that still held a better chance for keeping the cancer at bay than other treatments. Using the patient’s own cells, donor adult stem cells or cells from cord blood causes no harm to any other person, those both pre- and post-birth.
Ironically, since our stem-cell transplant, we have found out that there have been no proven therapies that have been successful using embryonic stem cells.
We find it curious, and disturbing, that there is so much emphasis on scientific research using embryonic stem cells as opposed to adult stem cells or cord blood cells. Why not pursue avenues that have already experienced positive results and build upon those? Especially when using adult or cord blood cells do not pose any ethical questions of killing embryos.
It’s been two and a half years since Don’s stem-cell transplant, since his cancer has been gone. We are forever grateful to the researchers and doctors who worked to make this treatment available.
Most of all we are thankful to a good and loving God who has blessed us abundantly in so many ways. Don is well now, and no unborn child was sacrificed on his behalf. We hope and pray that as more and more people realize the success of stem-cell transplants and therapies that do not use embryonic cells, the more support these treatments and research will receive.
Jackie Lindsey is an OSV book acquisitions editor.