Magazine Feature / People

Cord-blood transplant saves Gannon’s life

A little more than a year ago, Sheila Gannon was about to lose her battle with leukemia. Doctors said she had only a 5-percent chance of survival.

Today, Gannon — former director of Partners in Scholarship at DU — is cancer free thanks to a double umbilical-cord-blood transplant, the first procedure of its kind in Colorado.

Gannon and friend Ali Walton spoke about their experience during a workshop, “Overcoming Adversity and Taking Action: Inspiration to Save a Life,” at the 2007 DU Women’s Conference on March 2. Gannon says she is committed to raising awareness about cord-blood donation, a painless procedure offered by few hospitals but available via private donor services.

“Everyone knows someone with cancer,” she says. “This was my opportunity to raise awareness, give back and give people hope.”

Gannon’s saga began in her 38th week of pregnancy when she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) — a form of cancer that causes abnormal blood formation and a shortage of red and normal white blood cells and platelets.

After battling through chemotherapy and a fungal infection that caused her to have part of her lung removed, Gannon’s cancer went into remission.

Doctors had told Gannon that a bone-marrow transplant would provide her best chance of a complete cure.  When no donor match could be found among her family members or the six million people on the marrow donor registry, her DU colleagues sprung into action. Walton and Glenn Fee, associate director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, organized a series of marrow donation drives. Numerous faculty, staff and friends participated.

No donor match was found, so Gannon’s doctors began to discuss the possibility of an umbilical-cord-blood transplant.

Cord blood contains stem cells, the building blocks of all blood cells. In a successful transplant, the stem cells will survive in a patient’s bone marrow and produce healthy blood cells. Cord blood transplants don’t require the extremely close tissue-type matching of bone marrow transplants.

Gannon traveled to a clinic in Minnesota for the procedure, only to learn that her cancer had recurred and that she was no longer a candidate for the transplant.

She returned to Denver for more rounds of chemotherapy. Because no transplant programs would accept her unless she was in remission, her doctor at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center decided to pursue a research protocol for a double-cord transplant, a first for the program. By transplanting blood from two cords rather than one, there is a greater chance that one of them will “win out.”

On Jan. 3, 2006, Gannon received an infusion of cord blood donated from one male and one female baby.

During the eight weeks she spent in the hospital following the transplant, she faced four more life-threatening infections. But her body slowly healed as the cells from one cord created a new immune system.  

“I’ve been in remission for one year now,” says Gannon, who is open to the idea of returning to DU in the future. “After five years I’ll be considered completely cured.”

She is now regaining her strength and is enjoying spending time with her husband, Utah, and son, Sawyer.

While Gannon was sick, her DU coworkers delivered meals to her family three times a week and helped raise money for her expenses.

“We just wanted to help out in any small way we could. The whole ordeal that Sheila went through was very taxing on her and her family,” says Walton, a University requirements adviser. “Providing meals was just a small way to help out.”

“This whole experience has brought my family and friends closer together,” Gannon says. “I’ve learned that it’s OK to ask for and accept help.”

To learn more about cord blood donation, visit:  

This article originally appeared in The Source, March 2007.

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