Mary Taber’s marathon training requires a singular focus. It is demanding, solitary, life-affirming – not unlike her treatment five years ago for aplastic anemia and paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH).
Taber, intranet editor at Dana-Farber, will mark five years from her March 2011 bone marrow transplant by taking to the storied Boston Marathon® route on April 18 as a member of the 2016 Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge (DFMC) team.
Taber was a junior at Boston College (BC) in 2007 when she went to the campus infirmary with bruises all over her body. Blood work revealed her platelet count was 16; the normal range is 150-400. After blood and platelet transfusions, blood tests, and a bone marrow biopsy, Taber was diagnosed with aplastic anemia on April 30, 2007.
Aplastic anemia occurs when bone marrow produces too few red and white blood cells and platelets. Too few red blood cells can lead to a decrease in hemoglobin and fatigue; a reduced number of white blood cells increases susceptibility to infection, and too few platelets leads to increased risk of bleeding or bruising.
Taber, then 20, finished her college exams at home in New York and returned to Boston to meet with Joseph Antin, MD, chief and program director, Stem Cell Transplantation at Dana-Farber. She was given several treatment options, including a bone marrow transplant or an immunosuppressive therapy that Antin explained works long-term 50 percent of the time. Wanting to return to school in the fall, Taber opted for the immunosuppressive therapy. In June 2007, under Antin’s care, she began anti-thymocyte globulin (ATG), an infusion of horse or rabbit-derived antibodies against human T cells. The therapy lowers a body’s immune response, preventing the immune system from attacking bone marrow, letting stem cells grow back and increasing blood counts.
Taber returned to BC that fall, and by November she no longer required blood and platelet transfusions. She saw Antin once a month, and returned to her role as a member of BC’s dance team and assistant director of its dance organization in addition to a full course load.
She graduated in 2008 and returned home to attend Syracuse University for a master’s degree in television, radio, and film. After graduating in August 2009, she began working in New York City for the New York Television Festival. Each month, her blood counts were checked.
In spring 2010, at a routine checkup, tests revealed her counts were low again. She was diagnosed with PNH, a secondary marrow failure. Taber would need a bone marrow transplant.
Her parents moved temporarily to Boston, juggling the responsibilities of Taber’s treatment, work, and caring for their three younger children at home in Liverpool, New York. Taber began a three-week stay in the hospital, beginning with conditioning treatment – five days of chemotherapy and more ATG, followed on the sixth day by radiation. Then, new marrow from a donor – who was a perfect match – was delivered intravenously until the new cells started to grow and made healthy blood stem cells, a process known as engraftment.
Taber recalls a difficult inpatient stay that required IV nutrition and yet, she remembers “a beacon” – Antin. “He is amazing, the smartest man I know,” she says. “I can’t imagine being here without him.”
Taber was released from the hospital and for the next year she wore a mask and gloves in public to protect her fragile immune system. Restrictions included no fresh fruits and veggies, soft cheeses, deli meats, takeout, or flowers. After reaching her first post-transplant milestone – day 100 – Taber and her parents returned home. During that year, she took an online class at Onondaga Community College and returned to Boston periodically for appointments with Antin.
And it is here to Boston, where so much of her story with illness begins and ends, that she returned. She took a job at the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2013 before transitioning in late 2015 to a role in Communications.
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For Taber, who ran track in high school and has run one other marathon, the big goal – and a way to celebrate her health – was always running the Boston Marathon as a member of the DFMC team. “Dana-Farber means so much to me,” Taber says. “It’s going to be an emotional day, and totally unforgettable. The marathon will be a nice capstone to the whole transplant process.”
A process that ended just weeks ago at a final checkup with Antin, five years from her transplant date, at which he told her she was cured.
That turn onto Hereford Street and again on Boylston means so much to so many. For Taber, it marks the finish of a long race, and a return to good health.