Seven Tips for Life After Stem Cell Transplant

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By Maria Pearson

As a technology teacher who had a long career with IBM before going into education, I have encountered all sorts of opportunities to teach – and to learn. The biggest such opportunity of my life occurred at the intersection of cancer, technology, and Dana-Farber.

In August 2010, I was diagnosed with stage III multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. No search engine was adequate in comforting my fears of life expectancy, treatment, or facing a stark life-altering challenge.

Maria Pearson with her family

Maria Pearson (center) surrounded by her family, clockwise from top left: Noah, Hannah, Tim, Andrew, and Bear, the family's Sheltie

My journey brought me to Dr. Paul Richardson at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, from whom I learned about new bio-technologies and treatments developed within the prior five years. I needed a stem cell transplant; without healthy stem cells, my body could not make the blood and other components needed for my immune system to function.

My own stem cells were taken out and harvested with a system developed by none other than IBM. Healthy stem cells were then put back into my body intravenously. I progressed through my treatment and the finely orchestrated stem cell transplant under the care of Dr. Richardson and his staff, and after three weeks in the hospital, I returned home to a new set of challenges.

Here are some of the tips I learned about how to recover from a transplant:

How You Can Help

Charlie Rider had a stem cell transplant at Dana-Farber as young boy. In this video, Charlie and his family talk about how they made the challenging transition home from the hospital and dealt with the year of isolation that followed.

Approximately 70 percent of patients in need of a stem cell donor rely on unrelated volunteer donors, who may be their “miracle match” willing to donate life-saving cells. Learn more about:

Becoming a donor
Hosting a donor registration drive
The donation process
Upcoming donor registration drives

  1. Read the Post-Transplant manual and have your friends and family members do the same.  There is no substitute for staying informed, and this manual provides the best roadmap. Get help readying your home. Having a disinfected, clutter-free home when you return from a transplant is very important to the health of your immune system. Let friends and family know how they can help with dusting, organizing, laundry, vacuuming, etc.  Enjoy the break from housework!
  2. Stay in touch – even while in isolation. Infection is a major concern for stem cell transplant patients. During the hospital stay and for two weeks afterwards, everyone around me had to wear masks and gloves. My immune system was just beginning to build; I was like a newborn. So I limited face-to-face visits to family and close friends who were not sick, and video chatted with others remotely through FaceTime and Skype. After two weeks at home, I had a few more visitors but still kept a very light social schedule. My first big outing with the public was after 30 days.
  3. Recognize your limitations. My energy level was weak to moderate in the first few weeks, due in part to my inactivity in the hospital. I took naps in the afternoon before my three young kids came home from school. This would give me a recharge for the late afternoon/early evening rush. My wonderful husband, Tim, would take over when he arrived after work, and I could just be the supervisor of the crew!
  4. Work within the limits of isolation. I did not leave the house for 30 days, but I did go outside for fresh air. Spring was just around the corner, so I enjoyed looking at what was coming up from the ground in my perennial gardens. I was not allowed to dig or touch the soil because of infection concerns, so my daughter, Hannah, and younger son, Andrew, were my gardeners — I directed from a distance. My first public outing was to my son Noah’s baseball game. I felt it was safe; since I would be in open-air, there would be less exposure to traveling germs. The 100-day milestone really made a difference for me in feeling stronger and freer to explore without being threatened by germs. By summertime, and day 100, I was shopping the outlets for summer clothes.
  5. Build up your strength. I love to hike in the mountains, but between days 1-100 I had to build up my muscles and joints. I started with going back and forth to the mailbox the first few days, and then gently extending the distance and time outside — building my stamina and strength to handle the rocks and hills on our property. As soon as I was cleared, I climbed Mount Major in New Hampshire!
  6. If you have kids, adapt to stay safe. I could be around my kids as much as I liked as long as they were not sick, and they were great about wearing masks and gloves during the first few weeks.  My mother, Abuela (grandmother in Spanish), was a wonderful help during the first few weeks, and Tim, the love of my life, was always supportive and encouraging when I needed it the most. But the kids wanted my time when they were home.So when they jumped off the bus, immediate hand-washing and clothes-changing was a requirement — and then it was hugs and kisses for ALL. Boy, did we go through paper towels, antibacterial soap, and hand sanitizes, practices we still keep in place. I would go outside and pitch the ball for batting practice, kick the soccer ball back from the goals, and held the bike while my youngest learned to bike without training wheels. I tried to do everything I could with them, because this stem cell transplant was giving me another chance of a healthy long life with my family.
  7. Eat with gusto…and intelligence. Food wasn’t a priority any more, but the right kind of food was!  Maintaining a low bacteria diet is important until the immune function is back to normal. I had to wait 30 days to have raw fruits and vegetables; before that, they had to be cooked or processed (canned). Once the restrictions were over, I could not get enough fresh fruits and veggies. I transitioned my diet to about one-half vegan and one-half my regular diet (I love my ice cream!), resulting in a weight loss back to my marriage weight of 22 years before.

My own lessons were not unlike others who have gone through such a life changing transformation, and these lessons have served me not just during my re-birth (YAY! — new stem cells!!!), but for my new life.

Each day now I take time to pray, to love and be loved, and to find the beauty in the most chaotic and charming moments that three small children present. I’ve learned how to balance my life, live with a disease for which there is no cure, and be a better person in the process.  I am energetic and feeling very well, fully active working full-time and playing as often as possible.

No matter what tomorrow brings, I’m thankful for each and every day.

Maria Pearson, 51, is a technology teacher for the Winnisquam Regional School District in Tilton, New Hampshire. Diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in August 2010, she had a stem cell transplant in March 2011 and is currently on post-transplant maintenance bio-therapy at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.

13 comments

  1. Jane Kemmerer says:

    Great job sharing your story Maria! You have come along way, my friend. Your positive and thoughtful reflection about your journey will serve as an inspiration for many.

  2. Suzan Gannett says:

    Maria,

    You are a wonderful inspiration. I believe in the power of positive thought. Your own spirit helped to guide you. You are trully an amazing woman.

    Suzan

  3. Kevin Sousa says:

    Maria,
    Thank you so much for sharing this story. It is beautifully written, about a beautiful person and a beautiful family. Your smile and the smiles of Tim and your children say so much. Thank you for giving us this moment of pause to appreciate the good people in our lives and the inspiration that comes from each one doing/being their best in any circumstance.

  4. Marjorie Bonneville says:

    Maria, Words cannot express the joy I feel in seeing you so well and surrounded by your beautiful and loving family! I know they were the best incentive of all to get well. I am so proud of you! Stay well, stay in the moment and live, love and laugh always! Love you all! Thanks for sharing your journey.

  5. Sue Bergman says:

    Maria,
    You are such an inspiration! I believe that your positive attitude and energy not only touch those around you, but have helped you to heal as well. You are an influential teacher, mother, and friend. I am amazed by your journey and am happy to have been a part of it.
    Love,
    Sue

  6. P. Vulliez says:

    Maria,
    Thank you for sharing your story. It is a testimony of strength, love and generosity. You and Tim are bringing up three wonderful children, and you are doing so, while fighting the most challenging battle any person can have in a lifetime.
    Congratulations to the Pearson family!

  7. Ellen Guarente says:

    What a powerful and moving story of courage, hope and faith! Knowing you for as long as I have, I’m not surprised by your resiliency. You are a woman of tremendous strength who has always exhibited an interior and external beauty rarely found. I wish you years of health, happiness and peace. God is so good!

  8. Bob Ellis says:

    Hi Maria
    I hope this note finds you well. l was diagnosed with mm over 10 years ago and continue to be in total remission. When diagnosed I went to Dana Farber for my first evaluation. Unfortunately, the doctor that I saw did not give me any answers and and kept telling me to go to the internet to answer my questions.Evidently he was having a bad day. We were so discouraged after driving there from northern Maine. A month or so later a fellow colleague called me and reported that he had been dignosed with mm two years prior and had been treated at the mm center at the univ of Arkansas. Long story short, that is where I went. I was there for two months of treatments going through two stem cell treatments as well as back surgery for a plasmacytoma along my spine. Only when I reached neutropenia did I ever have to use a face mask while in public which lasted for probably two weeks.Other then that I used public transportation daily to get from my hotel to the hospital. Interesting the different approaches to treatments. My colleague is also in remission for 11 years.
    I wish you the best in all the years ahead of you in the journey of life.
    Bob

    • Dana-Farber says:

      Dear Bob:
      We are very sorry about your experience more than 10 years ago. We take great pride in taking whatever time is necessary to fully explain all aspects of care to our patients and their family members. We will share your note with the staff of our multiple myeloma program, as we clearly did not meet your very reasonable expectations or our own standards in this case. For that, we apologize.

      We’re glad that your treatments, and those of your colleague, were successful and return your wish for the best in all the years ahead.

  9. Wende Ragonis says:

    This is an inspiring story. It gives me hope that you are better, and my husband will get better too. My husband had his second transplant in Oct. of 2012 at MD Anderson. It was an allo, and in Jan. 2012 he had an auto, but relapsed within 2 months of that. It has been a frustrating process which took 3 years of non stop treatments to bring us to today. He is cancer free, but he has had fungal pneumonia, GVHD of the gut, and now a terrible cold. I think fish oil tablets help his GVHD. Our family is ready for some joy after transplant, your article gives me hope for that! Thank you for sharing.

  10. Sarah says:

    Hi Maria, I am very happy to read about your experience with Dana-Farber. My father was diagnosed over 14 years ago with a type of lung cancer. Dana-Farber was wonderful with our family and they gave us four more years of his life. Sadly he passed away 10 years ago. I am now experiencing a very traumatic cancer situation again with my father-in-law. He was recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma and was just seen yesterday at Dana-Farber. He was diagnosed at a stage III in his kidneys and stage II with bone marrow infection. I am wondering if you had either of these symptoms, kidney failure or bone marrow infection?

  11. larry kaiser says:

    Thank you Maria for sharing your story of hope, determination and renewal. And congratulations for getting through a procedure and recovery, that for me, was the most difficult in my life. The outcome of my Dana-Farber stem-cell transplant experience under the incomperable guidance of Dr. Arnold Freedman, Director of Hemotology Oncology, was equally positive and successful. And I would be remiss if I did not mention my loving and supportive wife Kiki who played an essential role in the arduous recovery process.

    Thank you Dana-Farber for giving me my life back as I knew it pre-diagnosis.

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