When Cinda Matthews began working as a speech therapist in the 1960s at the Houston Speech and Hearing Center on the campus of the Texas Medical Center, there were more trees than buildings.
Little did Matthews know that years later, her life would depend on MD Anderson Cancer Center, only blocks from where she’d worked. That life-altering revelation came in 2003, when Matthews was diagnosed with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML), a blood cancer that at the time had an average survival rate of two to five years.
“I was totally surprised and upset with the initial diagnosis,” Matthews says. “I’d always been healthy. I was told that chemotherapy might put my disease in remission, but it wouldn’t last. My only hope for long-term remission was a stem cell transplant.”
Although Matthews wasn’t considered young enough for a full stem cell transplant, a less rigorous method of infusing stem cells from a matching donor had recently been introduced. Known as a “reduced-intensity” transplant, the procedure uses lower levels of chemotherapy and radiation to wipe out most, but not all, of the cancer cells in the patient’s own bone marrow before replacing them with a donor’s healthy cells.
“The advantage was that the reduced-intensity transplant was much less risky,” says Matthews, “but my doctor also told me that only 1 in 3 patients who undergo the procedure experience long-term remission.”
Matthews’ sister Debbie was found to be a perfect match, and she happily donated stem cells to help her sibling battle cancer.
The transplant kept Matthews in remission for 18 months, but her cancer came back. Her sister donated a second time in 2006, and Matthews’ remission has lasted ever since.
“After each transplant, I was hospitalized for four weeks, then I had home care,” she says. “Since my second transplant, I see my doctor monthly and after each visit I receive five booster shots of azacitidine, an anticancer chemotherapy drug. It’s obviously been and will continue to be a long process, but the entire treatment has not been painful and I continue to live my life fully.”
After her second transplant, Matthews decided to join the ranks of the volunteers who spent time with her during treatment. “I enjoyed visiting with the volunteers and appreciated their work during both of my long-term stays,” she says. “I’m so grateful for my treatment at MD Anderson and wanted to give to others something of what had been given to me.”
As a volunteer, Matthews is especially touched by young mothers and fathers who undergo treatment and have to leave young children at home, often far away.
“Some tell me they just want to survive to see their children grow up,” she says. “Seeing my grandchildren develop and grow was very important to me, so I can only imagine what a parent must feel.”
Today, Matthews, 74, enjoys time with her six grandchildren, husband, three daughters and friends.
“I learned from this experience that many things happen in life beyond our control,” she says, “and that caring, smart doctors and nurses, as well as loving family and friends, can make all the difference. The disease as well as the treatment process has caused me to appreciate my many blessings. It’s deepened and strengthened my faith and my relationships.”
Reducing the intensity to reach remission
A reduced-intensity stem cell transplant uses lower levels of chemo and radiation than those used in standard transplants. The procedure allows older patients and those who are sick or frail to receive lifesaving transplants.