A California mother-of-three is in search of another bone marrow donor after relapsing just following a transplant of marrow for a donor she had to search the globe for.
Susie Rabaca, 36, of Carson, California, was diagnosed with the blood cancer acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in September, when she was approaching the third trimester of her pregnancy with twins Ryan and Rainy.
Her best hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant, but none of her family members nor 300 million registered donors on BeTheMatch.org had a similar enough blood composition to Rabaca’s to safely do a transplant.
Rabaca launched a viral campaign asking anyone in the world to sign up to donate so she might get to see her twins and other children grow up.
In December, she found her match and delivered her twins and in January Rabaca got her transplant – but the cancer has already come back with a vengeance.
So after her first donor search brought another 50,000 potential donors to the registry, Rabaca is back to square one, but holding onto hope for the sake of her children, she told ABC 13.
Susie Rabaca gave birth to twins Ryan and Rainy in December – the same month she found a bone marrow donor match. In January, the mother-of-three had a bone marrow transplant to treat her leukemia, but the cancer is already back, leaving her on the search for another donor
‘It’s been devastating because I just went through a transplant in January and I relapsed so quick, so I have to find another donor,’ Rabaca told ABC 13.
‘Coming into this the second time, I was very discouraged, but I look at their little faces and know that I have to push for them and my other children.’
Rabaca’s fast-moving blood cancer mutates the bone marrow, which produces new blood cells. It can quickly take over the production of these cells, forcing the marrow to instead churn out malfunctioning blood that can’t fight infection or clot as well.
AML is among the most aggressive forms of leukemia, but can sometimes be cured – if a patient gets a bone marrow transplant.
But that is easier said than done for Rabaca, whose blood profile is difficult to match because she is both Latina and Caucasian, Fox11 reported.
In January, Rabaca received a bone marrow transplant from a one-in-three-million donor
She intends to have a transplant just after her twins are born – on December 6 if all goes to plan – but with just weeks to go, Rabaca was still searching for a donor until she took her story public.
Leukemia comes in many forms, some of which strike children, while others are more likely to develop in adults.
Because they affect the blood, leukemias don’t form tumors, but can become widespread throughout the body.
Broadly speaking, leukemia is expected to strike about 60,300 people in the US this year.
The first indications of leukemia are somewhat subtle, including joint or bone pain, unusual levels of fatigue, dizziness, fever or loss of appetite.
A little less than one third of these will be AML, according to the American Cancer Society.
Rabaca was one of those people. In September, her doctors told her that she would need a bone marrow transplant if she was going to survive.
Treatments and prognoses for leukemia are as diverse as the types of the blood cancer and the people that get it, and quite different from other cancer treatments.
Rabaca said she was discouraged, but holds on to hope that she’ll get to see her infant twins Ryan and Rainy (pictured) grow up
Rabaca has an aggressive form of leukemia that saps her energy, but that hasn’t stopped her from tirelessly advocating for more people to donate bone marrow
While surgery would be the first line of treatment for many cancers in their earlier stages, neither an operation nor radiation therapy are typically used to treat AML.
Chemotherapy is an effective way to kill cancer cells of most types, but it has to be used judiciously because it can be so destructive to healthy cells.
This is certainly the case for AML.
Because it produces new blood cells, the bone marrow is too precious to target to heavily with chemo on its own.
But when chemo drugs are given with stem cells in a bone marrow transplant, the body is more resilient.
Doctors are certain that this is the treatment plan that Rabaca needs – but they can’t find bone marrow to treat her with.
Rabaca tried family members. Only her sister was a match at all, and only a partial one, so if her marrow was used, the grueling procedure might not even work.
Rabaca is mixed race – Caucasian and Latina – which makes it far harder for her to find a match, even among 30 million donors
So Rabaca joined BeTheMatch.org, a system meant to match donors with recipients in need.
When none of the 40 million registered donors had similar enough genes, she resolved to widen donor pool herself.
On NBC News, she made a call for anyone and everyone to give her and the other 12,000 or so people who need a marrow donor the ultimate gift this holiday season.
‘What I need people to do is join and they send you a kit, a little swab for your mouth, send it back, and if you’re my match it’s as simple as a blood draw, and that can possibly save my life,’ she said in a tearful interview with Fox11.
In order for a bone marrow transplant to be safe and effective, a donor and recipient have to have sufficiently similar DNA, at least in a group of genes called the HLA system.
People of the same ethnic groups tend to have the most similar clusters of these particular genes.
So if you are from a smaller minority group, there are fewer people with similar HLA genes to yours.
If you are mixed-race, the odds become even more slim.
Some 50,000 donors and just a few days later, Rabaca has her match.
‘Finding my match is everything to me, so I can be here for the three children I have, and the two that I have on the way, it’s everything,’ she told Fox11.
‘It’s so easy, there’s no painful procedure, there’s no surgery it’s just swab your mouth and it’s as simple as a blood draw, and you can save somebody’s life, if not mine, somebody else’s.’
Now, Rabaca will be living proof of that mantra.
‘Oh my god, to me it’s beyond amazing… joy and happiness, it really is. It’s so exciting, it’s the best Christmas gift,’ she told NBC.