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After a Prognosis of 6 Weeks to Live, Leukemia Patient Celebrates 25 Years of Survival

One of several 25-year survivors honored at Loyola

MAYWOOD, Ill. – After failing chemotherapy, leukemia patient Velma House was given only 4 to 6 weeks to live.

But she beat the odds with a bone marrow transplant. And 25 years later, she remains healthy and cancer-free.

Mary Olson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was given 8 months to live in 1986. More than two decades later she is cancer-free thanks to a bone marrow transplant from her long-lost adopted brother.

House and Olson, who are among the longest surviving bone marrow transplant patients, were honored Sept. 9, along with a handful of other 25-year survivors, at Loyola University Medical Center's annual Bone Marrow Transplant Celebration of Survivorship.

"Velma and Mary were among the early pioneers of bone marrow transplants," said Dr. Patrick Stiff, director of Loyola's Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center. "They are remarkable patients who truly beat the odds. It is a testimony to their will to live."

House, who lives in Chicago, was 47 years old when she saw a doctor about a bump on her leg and bruises on her arms. She was diagnosed with acute leukemia. After failing an initial round of chemotherapy, she came to Loyola.

A bone marrow transplant would be her only chance of survival. But it was a slim chance - only 10 percent to 20 percent. In 1987, bone marrow transplants were relatively new, but since then there have been big improvements in survival, Stiff said.

Prior to receiving the bone marrow transplant, House underwent extremely high-dose chemotherapy. In the process of killing cancer cells, the chemo also killed her immune system cells. To compensate, House received an infusion of bone marrow cells donated by her sister. These cells developed into healthy new immune system cells.

House spent more than two months in the hospital and lost 53 pounds. But the transplant succeeded, and she has been cancer-free ever since.

At the time of her transplant, House's son was 27 and her daughter was 14. "I had a will to live," she said. "My daughter needed me. My son needed me. I never thought I wouldn't make it."

House survived to see her daughter grow up and give her two grandchildren. And next year, House and her husband will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
"My life has been full," she said.

Mary Olson’s Story

When Mary Olson learned that a bone marrow transplant was her only hope for survival, she turned to her twin sister. However, doctors determined that her sister was not a match.

The pair had been given up for adoption at age 3 and separated from their only other biological sibling, a brother, who was adopted by another family.

Determined to find a cure for Mary, the Olson sisters contacted the chief of police in the town where they believed their brother had been adopted. Through a series of phone calls, the local police helped the Olsons find their brother. Doctors then determined that he was a match for Mary. She underwent the bone marrow transplant in 1986 and has been cancer-free ever since.

“My brother saved my life and the rest is history,” Olson said. “It took a near-devastating experience to bring us back together, but we are reunited as a family and we remain extremely close today."

Loyola has treated more than 3,000 patients with stem cell transplants from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood - more than any other center in Illinois. Loyola has one of the largest unrelated donor transplant programs in the world. Loyola also is one of the most experienced centers in the world in performing cord blood transplants from cells grown in the laboratory. Such transplants are designed to reduce complications and improve outcomes.

 

Loyola University Health System (LUHS) is a member of Trinity Health. Based in the western suburbs of Chicago, LUHS is a quaternary care system with a 61-acre main medical center campus, the 36-acre Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus and more than 30 primary and specialty care facilities in Cook, Will and DuPage counties. The medical center campus is conveniently located in Maywood, 13 miles west of the Chicago Loop and 8 miles east of Oak Brook, Ill. The heart of the medical center campus is a 559-licensed-bed hospital that houses a Level 1 Trauma Center, a Burn Center and the Ronald McDonald® Children's Hospital of Loyola University Medical Center. Also on campus are the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola Outpatient Center, Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine and Loyola Oral Health Center as well as the LUC Stritch School of Medicine, the LUC Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the Loyola Center for Fitness. Loyola's Gottlieb campus in Melrose Park includes the 255-licensed-bed community hospital, the Professional Office Building housing 150 private practice clinics, the Adult Day Care, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness, Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care and the Loyola Cancer Care & Research at the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Center at Melrose Park.

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Jim Ritter
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