Owego resident Becky Szymaniak will celebrate her eighth “Re-Birthday” in March, an occasion that marks another year as a stem cell transplant survivor.
Szymaniak, now 61, underwent a life-saving treatment in 2011, a stem cell transplant for Myelodysplastic Syndrome, or MDS, which is a cancer of the bone marrow.
Becky shared, “My transplant made me unwilling to give up on anything,” adding, “I stayed positive and I am lucky to be here today.”
Szymaniak began feeling ill in early 2010. Poor functioning bone marrow, that being red and white blood cells, along with platelets, was deemed the culprit, so chemotherapy treatment followed. Next, Becky’s blood cell counts plummeted dangerously to the point she endured some 350 blood transfusions.
Remarkably, it was blood donations from anonymous donors that kept the clock ticking.
Today, the only cure for MDS is a stem cell transplant. According to the American Cancer Society, the number of people diagnosed with MDS in the U.S. each year is estimated at about 10,000. One high-profile individual who underwent MDS treatment is Good Morning America co-host, Robin Roberts.
For Becky, the search for her own stem cell donor started with her family. Unfortunately, neither of her two younger brothers were a match. Becky explained that only one in four patients find a sibling match, so she next explored options via the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP). NMDP offers a registry called “Be the Match” that creates an avenue for patients to find a transplant match, and also partners with a global network.
The registration process, Becky remarked, “Is actually very simple. Register on-line at bethematch.org, and then wait for a kit to arrive by mail.”
A prospective donor swabs a sample from the cheek area inside their mouth, and then returns the kit via mail.
If selected, a donor is given proteins for several days to help boost cell production. Then, through an IV hooked up to a specialized machine, and upwards of a six hour process, stem cells are separated.
“Transplant Day” for Becky was March 22, 2011, known since as her “Re-Birthday.”
Blood cells from Becky’s donor were introduced into her blood stream. While her red blood cell count rebounded, her platelets remained especially low.
The entire process was no walk-in-the-park. Becky spent nearly five months at Wilmot Cancer Center, a component of Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y.
Twelve days out of the hospital, Becky had to be readmitted due to bleeding in her brain. The bleeding came under control, yet after two months the platelets showed no improvement. Becky’s donor was then contacted to donate additional blood. A week before the August 2011 flood, Szymaniak recovered enough to return home.
Becky’s condition remained marginal through the fall and early winter of 2011, and then by the following January, surgeon’s prepared to remove her spleen. The day prior to the operation, a surprise showed up in pre-op blood work.
Szymaniak said, “It was a miracle.”
That miracle indicated her blood platelet count was on the rise, and by July, platelets were back in the normal range.
Fast forward to today, Becky is checked annually and has had no reoccurrence.
“It’s been a life-changing experience, and it puts things in perspective,” Szymaniak remarked.
The experience has come full circle for Becky, too, who now focuses on “paying it forward.”
A former teacher’s aide in the OA School District, Becky has since retired. She volunteers for the American Red Cross and is also a peer support volunteer for BMT Caring Connections, a national organization that helps others who are dealing with stem cell transplants. This year, Becky and Brian are featured on the 2019 Caring Connections calendar, which offers inspiration and hope to others.
In addition, Becky has assisted at “Be the Match” registration events at Lockheed Martin in Owego, and was a member of a patient panel at Wilmot Cancer Center.
Szymaniak recently contributed many hours of elbow grease at the Belva Lockwood Inn in Owego. She volunteered her time to clean woodwork and also gave life back to the soapstone fireplaces. Her husband, Brian, a retired Lockheed Martin electrical engineer, helped with numerous tasks at the new Inn, too.
Relishing every moment of life, the couple has hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and also traveled to the Rhine River region of Germany, and where they had hoped to meet Becky’s donor. However, a death in the donor’s family postponed that visit.
Becky and her perfect-match donor, Janine, keep in touch via email utilizing Google Translate, and also exchange Christmas and birthday gifts. They will try to meet again in the future.
“Germany is a huge advocate for stem cell donors,” Becky explained, adding, “People there are encouraged at an early age.”
It is Szymaniak’s hope that with increased awareness, more donors in the U.S. will come forward. As the science of stem cell transplant advances, numerous diseases are being treated.
To consider becoming a stem cell donor, visit bethematch.org. For information about donating blood, visit redcrossblood.org or call 1-800-RED-CROSS.