Mary Robinson is a new person.
Sure, her exterior remains virtually the same, but her body’s constitution is extremely different following her Aug. 22 stem cell transplant at Nebraska Medicine’s Fred & Pamela Buffet Cancer Center. The decision to pursue a stem cell donor came in the wake of Robinson’s most recent battle with acute myeloid leukemia.
Robinson’s particular type of cancer is a fast-moving disease characterized by the rapid growth of abnormal white blood cells that build up in bone marrow and interfere with the production of normal blood cells.
Robinson, a Fremont Public Schools instructor for the visually impaired, was originally diagnosed with cancer in August 2014, and went into remission in September 2014 after being told she had a 50-percent chance of living. The cancer returned in May of this year, and Robinson once again entered remission in June, however, without a stem cell transplant it wasn’t a matter of if the leukemia would return, it was a matter of when.
“They said that chemo would have worked for only so long,” she said. “Nobody knows how long, but eventually the chemo would have stopped working.”
Through Be the Match, the largest and most diverse bone marrow registry in the world, Robinson found a perfect stem cell match in July through a 48-year-old German male donor. Robinson was unable to find a perfect match through her one sibling, four children or anybody domestically, so Be the Match took its search worldwide.
From May through August, Robinson completed three rounds of chemotherapy. The first round sent her into remission and the final two prepared her body for the stem cell transplant.
“If they wouldn’t kill all of my cells – my bone marrow cells – then they can’t give me somebody else’s,” she said. “They needed me to be completely depleted so that my body would accept the new ones, and forget about my old body. It truly is a re-birth, I don’t know how else to explain it.”
After the 1 ½ hour stem cell transplant procedure, which consisted of putting the stem cells into her body intravenously, Robinson’s genetic makeup changed. Her blood type has changed to A-positive, and she now has the DNA of a man. She will have to be fully immunized again.
“It’s almost like I’m a baby again, I have to get all my immunizations again, just as I did as an infant,” she said.
Throughout the past months, she’s had to be extremely cautious about what, and whom, she is exposed to.
“I was even scared to have my four kids at home, to tell you the truth,” Robinson said. “If I was to get sick, my immune system isn’t working correctly so it could be really bad … My kids have been so great, but if they had a sniffle or a cold I would basically try to quarantine them, and sanitize everything.”
The immunization process begins six months after the bone marrow transplant.
On Monday, she received the final bone marrow biopsy she will ever have, and Thursday marked the 100th day following her procedure. Robinson currently is on a cocktail of antibiotic medications, and will remain on anti-rejection medications for six months, but as of now, it appears that the transplant is taking.
“My doctors already have called me and told me that there are no signs of leukemia, and that my bloodwork is looking really good,” she said.
For months, the emotional and physical toll placed on Robinson has been unimaginable. Following the stem cell transplant, all of the side effects started kicking in.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “I had graph-versus-host on my arm, so I had to get on prednisone; I had blisters and burning on my hands and heels. I had mouth sores, throat soars and other symptoms ... Boy, I didn’t know how hard it was going to be.”
Prior to reaching the 100-day mark, Robinson visited her doctor twice-weekly; and now she will visit once-weekly. In the near future, the goal is to visit the doctor once every two weeks, she said. Robinson added that if a recipient of a stem cell transplant doesn’t reject it within two years, they generally are in the clear.
“It’s definitely going to be a slow process, but I don’t care, because I want to make sure that I’m OK,” she said.
While the trials and tribulations are far from over, there is light at the end of the tunnel for Robinson. Her unwavering faith, loving family and constant support base give her a sense of true hope.
“That’s the big thing, I never lost hope,” she said. “I trusted that God would see me through it. Even on the days where I didn’t know if I was going to make it another minute, I thought, you know what, God is going to get me through it. I knew he was going to and I never lost sight of that hope. I think when people lose that hope is when things don’t go so well.”
Having an optimistic spirit makes a world of difference, she added. That doesn’t mean life doesn’t come crashing down at times, but she knows how to handle it.
“It’s OK to cry, I have my little bouts of crying, but I get over it, I wipe my tears, and I thank God for this day,” she said. “As my 10-year-old Shaylee says, If God woke you up this morning he’s not through with you yet. And that’s so true, because I know that I’m here for a reason, and God has saved me twice now. So I must have one big journey ahead of me.”