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Meghan Woody and Spencer Keil

Childhood friends battle cancer together

Meghan Woody and Spencer Keil were competitive friends from the moment they met each other as toddlers. Spencer medaled in football and tennis. Meghan cheered throughout high school and ran cross country track. Both were also very strong academically. It didn’t surprise either family when both were accepted as pre-med students, Meghan at Boston College and Spencer at the University of Miami in Florida. Soon, however, excitement over school would turn to worry.

Childhood friends battle cancer

Meghan was diagnosed first. “Until you hear a diagnosis you kind of rationalize your problems away, but not leukemia.”

Within six months, Spencer was waging his personal war on non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “In the beginning it's a little bit of a whirlwind and you don't really know what's going on or what's in store...it's all about taking it one day at a time and dealing with it step by step.”

Both Meghan and Spencer returned home to Kansas City for treatment at The University of Kansas Health System Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) program.

“Spencer used his own stem cells to support intensive chemo-therapy to fight off the cancer which was successful,” Dr. Joseph McGuirk, director of the BMT program said. “Meghan, in contrast had leukemia of her bone marrow stem cells which required a donor to battle her cancer.”

Both Spencer and Meghan recently reached their 100 days post-transplant which is an important milestone in their recovery. They were among 215 stem cell transplants performed by The University of Kansas Health System BMT program in 2011, which shattered the prior year’s record high volume. The program did 179 in 2010.

It started 35 years ago, March 1, 1977.

“We've become one of the largest transplant programs in the country,” Dr. McGuirk said. “We are one of the largest acute leukemia programs in the nation and our outcomes are second to none.”

He knows that for a fact. He quarterly tracks and compares The University of Kansas Health System BMT outcomes to more than 100 other academic centers through the University Health System Consortium database to ensure patients are receiving the very best possible care.

Through better matching of donors, improved treatment options and supportive care, blood marrow transplantation has gone from being a last ditch effort to save a patient’s life to becoming one of the best treatments for many life-threatening cancerous diseases including leukemia, lymphoma, various solid tumors and others cancers as well as bone marrow failure syndromes and immunodeficiency disorders.

Dr. McGuirk credits the community and hospital leadership for what he calls a “remarkable commitment” to The University of Kansas Health System BMT program. He is equally proud of Meghan’s and Spencer’s road to recovery and plans for the future.

“They're both super stars and both following in my footsteps, although they have big shoes to fill,” Dr. McGurik said with a grin. “In all seriousness, it is difficult to put into words how heartwarming it is and how exciting it is to take care of these two beautiful and very bright people who have spectacular futures ahead of them.”

Blood Marrow Transplant (BMT) Fast Facts and Stats

The BMT program at The University of Kansas Health System turned 35 years old this March. Since 1977, it has performed 1,600 transplants with 215 transplants in 2011, alone. Nationwide, the number of Blood and Marrow Transplants has surpassed 16,000 annually. Once reserved for only the fittest and younger patients as a last resort, BMT’s are now open to older and sicker patients and enjoying much better outcomes. While statistical comparison of historical outcomes is difficult to do because of the rapid growth and advancements in the BMT field over the last 35 years, some trends are clear and outlined below affirming that BMT is now a powerful weapon on the front line battle against several cancers. The following data is from the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research.

  • The number of autologous (patient’s own stem cells) and allogeneic (donor stem cells) transplants for treatment of malignant diseases in older patients is increasing. Thirty-five percent of autologous transplant recipients and 13% of allogeneic transplant recipients in 2005-2009 were older than 60. The majority of autologous transplant recipients (67%) and 36% of allogeneic transplant recipients were older than 50 in this later period.
  • The number of autologous transplants in the U.S. has steadily increased since 2000.
  • Allogeneic transplants from unrelated donors surpassed the number of allogeneic transplants from related donors after 2006. The major contributing factors to this trend are the growth of unrelated donor databases and improvements in unrelated donor transplant.
  • Multiple myeloma is the most common indication for autologous transplantation. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is the most common indication for allogeneic transplantation.
  • One-year survival rates after transplantation have improved in the last two decades.
  • Peripheral blood stem cell transplantation, introduced in 1986, is the most common transplantation procedure performed in medicine. It is performed 100% in autologous transplants and about 75% in allogeneic transplants.
  • Umbilical cord blood is the most common graft source for patients younger than 21 years (44%), and mobilized peripheral blood (72%) was the most common graft source for unrelated donor transplants in patients older than 20 from 2005-2009.
  • Among patients older than 20, there has also been an increase in the number of unrelated donor transplants which surpassed the number of related donor transplants.