Alberta mother battling leukemia desperately searching for stem cell match

Watch above: Tammy McLash is a young mom of twin toddlers, but she has barely seen them in over 50 days because she’s fighting for her life in hospital. But, as Su-Ling Goh reports, there’s a way you could help.

EDMONTON – Imagine being a mother of twin toddlers. Now imagine being separated from your children because you have to stay in the hospital while you fight leukemia.

For the past 51 days, 38-year-old Tammy McLash has only been able to see her two-year-old twins for half an hour a day.

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“She lives for 3:30, 4 o’clock every day,” said her husband Mathew. “This is her time.”

Tammy is generally very healthy, so when she had a sore throat for several weeks in June, and then a rash on her legs, she visited several walk-in medical clinics. She was told it was likely a virus of some kind.

But then, when a large bruise refused to heal after a family reunion in August, she found a new family doctor and went for a full physical.

After getting test results back, her doctor told her to go to an emergency department. Her platelet count was very low.

“She called me crying,” recalled Mathew, “so obviously, when she’s crying, I’m crying. And she said it was cancer.”

Tammy was immediately admitted to the University of Alberta hospital and started her first round of chemotherapy. When that session didn’t work, doctors immediately put her on a second round of chemo.

“She’s been in here for 51 days since and home for 16 hours since.”

“It’s been a lot of time here,” said Mathew.

Once the chemo is effective and she’s in remission, Tammy will need a stem cell transplant, but so far has been unable to find a match. Even her brother and sister aren’t matches.

“Then you start to get nervous,” said Mathew. “You have to look globally and you hope you find somebody… you don’t know.”

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Tammy McLash, in hospital in Edmonton with her twins Madeline and Adam, summer 2014.

Supplied, McLash family

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Tammy McLash, in hospital in Edmonton with her twins Madeline and Adam, summer 2014.

Supplied, McLash family

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Tammy McLash with Adam summer 2014.

Supplied, McLash family

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Tammy McLash with her twins Madeline and Adam, summer 2014.

Supplied, McLash family

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Tammy McLash with her Madeline summer 2014.

Supplied, McLash family

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Tammy McLash, in hospital in Edmonton with her twins Madeline and Adam, summer 2014.

Supplied, McLash family

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Tammy McLash, in hospital in Edmonton, summer 2014.

Supplied, McLash family

“We’re just praying that she’s got a match soon, but praying she’s in remission right away so she can come home.”

“Everyone’s been very helpful but it’s never easy when you have your kids seeing their mom in hospital every day, and you have to say goodnight for mommy every night, and have to wake them up every morning. It’s tough,” said Mathew, his voice breaking.

“They just want mommy. I can’t blame them – so do I.”

So far, the kids don’t seem to notice the huge change in their mom.

“Adam will make her take off her hat and rub her head and say ‘mommy you’re so beautiful.’”

Mathew is hopeful that more people will consider becoming stem cell donors.

“We’re not hoping for a cure, we know there’s a cure out there, we just don’t know who has it. Someone is that match. We can cure Tammy’s leukemia if we find a match.”

In Canada, 340,000 people have registered to be stem cell donors. In addition, there are 70 registries in 65 countries around the world.

In total, a patient waiting for a stem cell transplant could potentially search 24 million donors – and 500,000 umbilical cord blood units – worldwide for a match.

You can register at blood.ca.

Canadian Blood Service’s OneMatch program says the best candidate is between 17 and 35, male, in good health, and is willing to donate to any patient in need.

“We’ll send you a buccal swab kit in the mail,” explained Jillian Adler, with CBS’ OneMatch stem cell and marrow network. “It’s two Q-tips and people swab the inside of their mouth and they send that back to us, that goes to our lab and, when testing is complete, that information is uploaded and the registrant then becomes a searchable donor for all patients in need throughout the world.”

Younger, male donors are also shown to provide patients with better quality of life after transplant, said Adler.

If you are deemed the best possible match for a patient, you will be asked to donate. Eighty per cent of the time, the donation is made through a needle from peripheral blood. Sometimes, the donation has to be made from the bone marrow in day surgery.

READ MORE: Molecule boosts stem cells in cord blood: study  

Stem cells, specifically blood stem cells, are found in bone marrow, peripheral circulating blood and umbilical cord blood. These blood cells are immature cells which can become red blood cells (cells that carry oxygen), white blood cells (cells that fight infection), or platelets (cells that help control bleeding.)

“Our bodies are constantly manufacturing these cells in order to sustain life (they make up our immune system),” explained Marcelo Dominguez with CBS.

“Without these healthy cells, the consequences can be life-threatening.

“A stem cell transplant replaces the patient’s unhealthy stem cells with the donor’s healthy stem cells.”

“You essentially inherit this other person’s immune system,” added Mathew.

At any given time, about 1,000 patients are waiting – and searching – for a stem cell match.

Mathew is hopeful Tammy will find her match – and her cure.

“The OneMatch program is very thorough … and there’s a good chance of finding a match.”

“The scarier part for me is: we’re confident we’re going to find a match, we just don’t know how much time we have to find a match.”

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