April 4 is just another day to most people. But to Erika Evans, it’s an important one. This year, it marked the fifth anniversary of the day she had a double umbilical cord blood transplant at MD Anderson for her acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment. And for Erika, the fact that she’s still around for the milestone at all was cause for celebration.
“When I was diagnosed, I was given very little hope of survival,” Erika says. “I want people to know it’s possible not just to survive, but to thrive and to live a healthy, wonderful life again.”
Spreading awareness about cord blood donations
When Erika had her own children about 20 years ago, cord blood banking wasn’t an option. But today, she encourages other expectant parents to donate their babies’ cord blood by sharing her story at Lamaze classes. She also works closely with an international nonprofit dedicated to finding tissue-type matches for blood cancer patients seeking stem cell transplants.
“I can’t put into words how grateful I am to the parents who donated their babies’ cord blood,” Erika says. “They didn’t just save my life; they saved an entire family. Because of them, my kids still have their mother, my mom still has her daughter, my sister still has her sibling and my friends still have their buddy.”
Erika is also actively cultivating the next generation of cord blood donors in her family. “I can guarantee that my kids will be donating their babies’ cord blood when that day comes,” she says. “Cord blood holds the promise of cures for so many horrific diseases.”
Sharing hope with others
In addition to her cord blood donation and stem cell registry activities, Erika also finds great satisfaction in mentoring other leukemia patients, some from as far away as Tanzania, Belgium and Jordan.
“I get contacted by people from all over the world and share my story almost daily,” Erika says. “I try to reassure them that even though it seems like a longshot, and it’s such a hard process, a stem cell transplant is absolutely worth the fight. Before you know it, you'll be one, two, three years post-transplant and realize that you did it.”
As someone who has watched a close family member succumb to leukemia and a survivor herself, Erika feels uniquely qualified to offer other cancer patients and their families encouragement.
“I’ve been in both situations, so I can truly relate to their pain,” she says. “I know what it’s like to look out a hospital window and just wish you were anyone else. One day you’re healthy and living life, and the next you’re in total isolation, fighting to survive.”
Not sweating the small stuff
Erika’s experiences have also given her a much deeper appreciation for life’s little everyday miracles.
“I don't sweat the small stuff,” she says. “Before, I would wake up and get caught up in the hustle of the day and material things that didn’t matter. Now, I feel the wind, listen to the birds, smell the flowers, feel the sun and just thank God for another day. It’s much easier to appreciate when you’ve been on the 16th floor of a hospital, looking out a window in total isolation.”
Advice for other stem cell transplant recipients
The one thing Erika wants other cancer patients to know is that it’s absolutely possible to get through a stem cell transplant and come out on the other side successfully.
“I’ve been there, and you’re going to get through this,” she says. “Medicines have come a long way, even since my transplant. You’re going to live again. You’re going to be healthy, and it’s going to be amazing. It just takes time.”
Time is on Erika’s mind now more than ever, after reaching such a significant milestone.
“I remember begging God for just five more years. Just five more years to see my kids graduate,” she says. “You can rest assured that after hitting that anniversary, I’ve renegotiated the deal. I plan to live an extremely long and happy life.”