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Cord Blood Transplant Gives Patient Hope

CancerWise - June 2007

 
By Dawn Dorsey

When Fernando Mireles learned he needed a stem cell transplant to treat his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he and his family tried everything they could think of to find a match.

Fernando Mireles

They organized screenings for his large, extended family, held donor events in Houston’s Hispanic neighborhoods, and even tested co-workers. At the 11th hour, two total strangers stepped in to save his life.

The stem cells he expected to receive from his transplant did not come from bone marrow donors. They came from the umbilical cords of two women who had just given birth. Last July, Mireles, 54, received one of those donations through the M. D. Anderson Cord Blood Bank.

Stem cells, the cells from which all blood cells develop, can be transplanted into cancer patients to regenerate blood cells destroyed by radiation therapy or cancer-killing drugs.

Traditionally, the source of stem cells has been bone marrow, the soft, spongy tissue in the center of large bones that produces white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. But researchers have realized that stem cells from umbilical cords have much potential as an alternative source.

Cord blood is increasingly in demand because it is often difficult to find donors with compatible marrow, especially for minorities. Umbilical cord blood is a valuable source of stem cells that does not require as precise a match as marrow.

Knee pain was first symptom

For 27 years, Mireles was a deputy sheriff patrolling the same area in north Houston. Up at 5:00 a.m. and out of the house by 6:00, he loved his work. Then, in late 2004, he began to feel pain in his left knee.

He thought it was a pinched nerve, but an MRI revealed a tumor, and Mireles was referred to an oncologist at a regional cancer center. After a biopsy of lymph nodes in his chest, Mireles was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

He was treated for seven months, but didn’t get better, Mireles says. The couple then insisted on a referral to M. D. Anderson

Donor found just in time

At M. D. Anderson, he was to receive a stem cell transplant. Once there, the exhaustive search for a donor began. The wait was frustrating.

Finally, when Mireles almost had reached the end of his rope, his doctor called. Although he had not been able to find a compatible bone marrow donor, his doctor had found cord blood that was matched.

In July 2006, Mireles checked into M. D. Anderson and received the transplant.

The road to recovery begins

When Mireles was released after three months of transplant therapy, he was required to visit the hospital every day for a month for blood tests and medication to rebuild his immune system. Eventually, he and his wife learned to administer much of the liquid medication at home. He takes 14 pills daily.

“Taking all the medicine is a hassle sometimes, and sometimes I have trouble sleeping,” he says. “But I am getting a little stronger all the time.”

Others who have been through the experience have told Mireles that it may be a year or two before he is back to normal. Knowing he has a long road to recuperation, Mireles is taking it one step at a time. He’s not ready to think about going back to work yet, and side effects of the medication make it difficult for him be away from home for long periods of time. But he is gradually returning to his pre-transplant activities.

Small pleasures mean the most

Mireles has a reputation as a great cook, and recently he barbecued 10 chickens for a family reunion. He loves old Tejano music and sports – especially baseball.

He needs no reminders that other people’s generosity makes it possible for him to be home when his chatty 7-year-old daughter, Celine, the youngest of his six children, and 15-year-old son get home from school.

When he is feeling up to it, he walks in the mall, striving for that balance of pushing himself, but not too much. His kids love to go to a local flea market just to browse and be with him.

“At first I couldn’t figure out why they liked to go there,” Mireles says. “But I have figured out they are interested in seeing all the unusual things, and I guess just spending time with me. It’s a little thing, but I’m so glad I can be with them.”

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center