Sisters Amber and Sabrina Starke wear matching necklaces and rings as a reminder of their commitment to each other and to keep fighting the fight against leukemia.
After graduating from high school, Amber started college in May 2003. She passed out at work one day and was taken to her local emergency department. A CT scan revealed a tumor the size of a grapefruit between her heart and lung. The tumor was putting pressure on her heart, which caused her to collapse at work. Her doctors then performed a biopsy on the tumor, which showed Hodgkin's lymphoma. After completing six months of chemotherapy and four weeks of radiation, Amber was considered to be in remission. She then went back to work and lived a normal life, until about 10 years later.
In February 2013, Amber started to feel sick. She thought she would get over this feeling, but she did not. In April, she noticed lumps on her neck and decided to go see her oncologist. This is when she was told that she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Amber had trouble understanding why this would happen again, 10 years later. But she said, “I knew that I was a fighter then, and I am a fighter now. I would not let this disease get the best of me.”
Amber’s doctors at home admitted her to the hospital for more chemotherapy, when they then decided that she would need a bone marrow transplant from a donor as her best chance at getting into remission. After receiving this news, Amber was told that Mayo Clinic in Florida was the best place to go for bone marrow transplant. She decided to leave her home in West McLean, Va., to move to Jacksonville, Fla., for about four months to go through her bone marrow transplant and the necessary follow-up.
Amber has a great support system that includes her family and friends. Her three sisters all jumped at the chance to be tested to be potential donors. After the testing, her older sister, Sabrina, was found to be a perfect match. On July 25, 2013, Amber entered the hospital to begin a conditioning regimen of high-dose chemotherapy prior to her transplant. The same day, Sabrina began daily injections to prepare for her stem cells to be harvested. Her cells were collected through IVs in her arms on July 29. With the help of Amber’s BMT nurse coordinator, Sabrina was able to request for her “gift” to be given to her sister on Aug. 2, Amber’s 29th birthday, so she would have two birthdays on one day!
Amber’s road to recovery continues, and she is currently 35 days post-transplant. She describes her experience at Mayo Clinic as “amazing” and says she has never been around so many caring, happy people.
“Life after transplant is going to be great,” she says. Amber’s plans for the future are to get married, have children, and a live a happy and healthy life. She would also like to become more involved with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The society means a great deal to her, Amber says, as she has had friends that have both survived and passed away fighting blood cancers. “We need to keep fighting so that we don’t have to lose anyone else,” she says.
Throughout Amber’s treatment for both Hodgkins lymphoma and acute lymphoblastic leukemia, her sister has stood by her side. “Sabrina is my sister, my caregiver and my donor,” Amber says. If she could tell Sabrina anything in response to what she has gone through to save her life, Amber says it would be, “Thank you! I owe you my life!” Sabrina says she feels that keeping a positive attitude and laughing a lot helps with her healing. “Caring for someone with cancer can be difficult,” she says. “You feel like there’s not a whole lot you can do, but what you can do is keep their spirits up.”
Amber’s advice to other patients going through a similar situation is to stay positive. “It’s all about attitude!" she says. “Surround yourself with the people you love, and you’ll get through anything.”
September is blood cancer awareness month – anyone who wants to help the fight against blood cancers can do so by joining the Be The Match registry to become a potential marrow donor. According to Sabrina, when you are weighing the decision to join the registry and potentially save a life, you should know that, “It’s not too difficult; you don’t have to be helpless in this fight.” You can also help raise awareness for the fight against blood cancers by getting involved with your local Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Chapter.
Written by Erin Mobley, BMT Data Specialist at Mayo Clinic in Florida