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John Schmidt Headshot

My Journey to Transplant

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Many cancer patients are fortunate enough to achieve remission right out of their first round of treatment, also known as induction chemotherapy. Those patients have the comfort of knowing that they may be able to continue on with their lives after the first cycle. Unfortunately I'm not one of those patients.

Instead, I have to rely on a bone marrow transplant to save my life.

When your goal is getting a bone marrow or cord blood transplant, you physically lose that eased feeling and also the idea that the cancer wouldn't be around long enough to take over your life. Many cancer patients know that when they reach remission, it could potentially mean the end of their cancer days for good. For me as a cord blood recipient I know that getting into remission is only a battle in the midst of the war I must win against time and inevitable complications, all of which mean you're going to be dealing with this for months to come. When I say "take over your life," I mean the constant reminders that make your illness feel much more prevalent -- in the physical sense: infusions, vomiting, sweats, fevers, etc., and also in the mental sense: people assuming you always feel terrible, watching your friends dwindle, being angry and not knowing who to blame, confusion, denial, regret, fear, etc.

I have Acute Myeloid Leukemia, and my particular sub-type is erythroleukemia (which was originally misdiagnosed, one of many mistakes that my oncology team made during my induction chemotherapy). I was anxious and frightened with the reality of having this non-hereditary, aggressive type of cancer. The statistics and stories you find on the Internet become the artillery that attacks your mind and forbids you from going into treatment with an open mind. I wasn't exactly devastated but I knew it wasn't going to be an easy road. It was all unimaginable to me.

The only other knowledge I had about cancer before I got diagnosed was occasional information I acquired through mass media (celebrities getting cancer, etc.) and my participation in Relay For Life. I had always known, however, that it had taken the life of my uncle, Eduardo Moreno, my grandpa, Alfredo Moreno, and my father's grandparents on his mother's side. My mom would tell me wonderful stories about how Eduardo taught me how to kick around a soccer ball and how abuelito (grandpa) would take me to the park and care for me while my mother cared for her brother, mi tio Eduardo. I wasn't alive when my father's grandparents died and just a mere two years old when my tio Eduardo and my abuelito passed away from brain cancer, so I had absolutely no idea what their experiences were like with cancer. I do remember for a small amount of time seeing my mom grieve for her brother and her father, who were taken away from her one right after the other, with no answer from above -- and how she pulled out of that everlasting sorrow and grief and kept her faith in God afterwards is a miracle to me.

As a cancer patient waiting for a transplant, I enter each round of chemotherapy knowing that achieving remission will only get me in line for the actual life-saving procedure. It was really hard to have any optimism when my doctor recently told us that my genetics only opened a few doors when it came to being cured. For example, he wasn't optimistic about finding a match in the National Bone Marrow Registry -- explaining that as an only child of mixed race, it would be hard to find a perfect match. For example, my dad, whose ethnic background is German and English, would be a perfect candidate for a bone marrow transplant because people of Western European descent comprise 90 percent of the registry. My mother, on the other hand, is half South-American Indian and half Spanish, a combination that is vastly underrepresented in the registry.

My cord blood transplant is different from a traditional bone marrow transplant in that a cord blood transplant includes very fertile and young stem cells that take about three weeks longer to graft, making full remission a requirement in order for it to work, whereas a traditional BMT requires a leukemia blast percentage under about 5 percent.

My goal of getting my cord blood wouldn't even exist if it weren't for couples that were generous enough to donate their infants' umbilical cords. The sad truth is that many people have it in their hearts to save a life with their infants' cord blood, but have no clue that they can. (Click here for information about cord blood donation.) That's why there needs to be more exposure on this subject. I mean, why doesn't the Red Cross have pamphlets and plenty of information on cord blood donations when they hold their events? Donating blood, platelets and plasma aren't the only ways that you can help cancer patients and it's sad that most people don't realize they can contribute in more than one way. Bottom line is, if you choose to donate umbilical cord blood, your labor and delivery are not affected. No blood is taken from your baby, only from the umbilical cord itself after your baby is born. It's amazing how far technology has come. The mission now is spreading enough awareness to save lives, mine included.

Before I was diagnosed with AML I had no idea that I was eligible to be on the National Bone Marrow Registry. I was so unaware of all the lives that dangled by a thread, awaiting a match from an unrelated donor. Thousands of patients with blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, sickle cell and other life-threatening diseases, need a bone marrow transplant. You could be the one to save a life. Prospective donors must be between the ages of 18-60 and in general good health. Testing is simple, and involves a swab of cells from the inside of the cheeks. Swabbing takes less than five minutes. The donor is then entered into the bone marrow registry. I wanna start an online campaign to combat this unawareness because most people are eligible and have no idea. So lets take advantage of this #swabbortunity and make a difference, I don't care how cliché that sounds, make it happen! (To save a life, click here!)

I've been back home having some of the greatest times with some of my worst times all at once. I can't believe it has been three weeks since I left the Ronald McDonald House in New York City after living there for almost a year. I have been doing my second round of Dacogen (Decitabine) for almost two weeks now at the University of Michigan Cancer Hospital. I only have a couple days left of this chemotherapy and it has been relatively easy on my body compared to most of the other chemos I've had. The only time I have to endure pain is when finding a feasible vein to inject the chemo in, so I guess I have something in common with Nikki Sixx and a few other British rock star junkies. The doctors tried to put in another central line on Monday and failed. This is the third time they have tried to put a line in since I've been home and it doesn't get any less painful. So in other words, I have to get poked every time I need infusion.

I had my party Saturday, July 27th, and was very happy that I was able to be on my feet for it. We had a cookout, bonfire and music. A recipe that always goes well with a nice day and good people. However, I find myself lonely on many nights despite the company of my family. I do not feel this is my home. I feel like a tourist among all the people I used to know. For now, I can only take advantage of the time I feel stable and healthy enough to go on. Just like any other tourist my vacation time is almost up.

Transplant is still the goal, and no matter what the doctors say I will not abandon my goals because the last thing we lose as humans is hope. Using hope as my fuel, I will return to New York soon. I am excited to see everyone there, from my family in New Jersey, to my fellow cancer crushers in NYC, I feel like I am going back to my true home.

For more information on the critical need for bone marrow donors, visit Be the Match.

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