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Duke stem cell patients celebrate 20 years of reunions

Posted 6:36 p.m. Wednesday

— Duke Hospital is known worldwide for its innovation in treating blood cancers. Since 1984, doctors at Duke have performed more than 4,500 bone marrow and stem cell transplants.

For the last 20 years, survivors have been celebrating the gift of life with a reunion.

In 1996, there were 20 patients for the first reunion of Duke's Bone Marrow Transplant program. Twenty years later, there are 400.

"It's a great time for celebration, people come back, they have their hair back," said Dr. Nelson Chao, chief of cell therapy. "You can't recognize them anymore, they don't look like patients, they look like normal people."

Susan Kopkind was one of the attendees. In 1998, she faced a dire prognosis from breast cancer.

"Well, you have a 1 percent chance of being here in five years with conventional chemotherapy," she said. "That's when I had really bad mouth sores and had just started the treatment."

A donor's bone marrow stem cells helped cure Kopkind, but the treatment is no longer offered as an option for breast cancer.

"The early data were encouraging, the randomized studies show that it wasn't much better than what was otherwise available without the transplant," Chao said.

Chao says the treatment is now used primarily for blood cancers, like leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. He says there have been many advances that make the treatment easier on patients, and easier for donors.

Kopkind, now 70, remembers wondering if she would live to see her oldest son graduate high school.

"And I did...and then he graduated from college and my daughter graduated from high school," she said.

Family photos remind her of how much she would have missed without the life-saving treatment.

"Thank God that the doctors were so good and very responsive and my family really helped get me through it too," Kopkind said.

Duke now performs about 300 bone marrow stem cell transplants every year. The program has expanded to help children, as well as some patients with autoimmune disease and even sickle cell disease.

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