In 2006, Stephen Smith was a 26-year-old U.S. Air Force pilot stationed in California, when a colleague told him about a loved one who had been recently diagnosed with lymphoma.
The fellow soldier was encouraging colleagues to sign up for the U.S. Department of Defenceʼs “Salute to Life” bone-marrow donor registry. So Smith, whose real name has been changed for security reasons, swabbed his cheek, popped it in an envelope and sent it off, hoping he’d done something good.
He couldn’t have known that his spur-of-the-moment decision would not only save a stranger’s life, but change his own.
The following year, Luba Banuke, then 57 and a professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., began feeling unwell – tired, sluggish and not at all like her usual chipper self.
“I went to my GP, and within two weeks of a bone marrow biopsy, I was diagnosed with terminal T-cell lymphoma,” she says. Within a few months, Banuke was on intensive chemotherapy, and after three rounds of treatment in two years, things looked bleak – until a call from Vancouver General Hospital’s hematology department. Would she like to try for a stem-cell transplant?
“I thought it was a wrong number,” Banuke says. “No one had talked at all to me about this.”
At the time, Banuke was pushing the age limit for a transplant, but she’d been exceptionally healthy before her diagnosis – and she had nothing to lose. Today, treating patients of Banuke’s age is more common.
“We’ve learned how to do transplants using less aggressive chemotherapy,” says Dr. Donna Hogge, the doctor who oversaw Banuke’s treatment. “So older patients have more success. The oldest patient I’ve treated was 72.”
Critically, of course, the right donor had been found. That February, Smith learned he’d been matched with a patient, a woman in Canada. He would fly from Oklahoma to Virginia to undergo the five-day donation process. There, he was injected with filgrastim, a medication that boosts blood-forming cells.
Then came donation day: Blood was drained from one of Smith’s arms and returned to the other, with stem cells separated in between. The process goes on as long as it takes to produce enough cells for the recipient. (Smith was hooked up for six hours – he knows others who’ve been connected for far longer. He recalls a nurse telling him, “You’re lucky your recipient is small.”)
And that was it, until one day in April, 2012, when Smith received a message from the donor program office: His recipient was alive, and wanted to make contact.
“I’ve heard of donor meetings going badly, but Luba and her entire family are incredible. They could be my cousins.”
— Stephen Smith, stem cell donor
Smith experienced a gamut of emotions – relief, that he knew the outcome; joy, that his recipient had survived; and nervousness, at what their interaction might bring.
Banuke and Smith began an e-mail exchange, which culminated in an invitation to Banuke’s grandson’s bar mitzvah in 2013.
Since then, Smith, his wife, and Banuke’s family have travelled to New York, Namibia (where Banuke’s sister lives), and elsewhere. “I’ve heard of donor meetings going badly,” Smith says. “But Luba and her entire family are incredible. They could be my cousins. We share the same love of the outdoors, and this real closeness has developed.”
The two families spent three days together this August in British Columbia, sightseeing and celebrating Banuke’s 10-year survival – as well as a friendship that neither anticipated.
They’ve also spent time researching their genetic history, both tracing their ancestry to Belarus and Poland. That illustrates the importance of a diverse donor base. According to Dr. Hogge, the genetic diversity of the global donor base is improving, and the odds of finding a “10 out of 10” match much higher than a decade ago. “But some patients we still can’t find donors for,” she says. “Particularly because the vast majority of donors are Caucasian, so it’s especially important to find more Black and Asian donors.”
Banuke’s family is doing its part to help. Both of her grandsons have organized campaigns at their high schools in recent years. “More than 100 kids got on the registry, thanks to that,” Banuke says. “I hope that means more stories like mine.”
Both Banuke and Smith hope that their stories also encourage more donations, volunteering and other assistance to organizations like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada which works hard to find cures, as well as improve treatment options so fewer patients end up requiring a transplant at all.
“In lieu of gifts for my 10-year celebration we’re asking people to give to the [Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada],” Banuke says. “It’s really the most important thing you can do.”
LLSC has been vital in helping support patients and families to improve quality of life and survival, according to Dr. Hogge. When it comes to treating patients like Banuke, it’s helped make transplantation a viable option for more patients, including older ones. “That money is used directly by Canadian researchers to improve therapies,” she says. “It’s incredibly important.”
To make a contribution, become a volunteer or find other ways to support the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada, visit llscanada.org/other-ways-to-help
As seen in the Globe and Mail on September 23, 2019