Clinical Story: It Takes a World to Cure a Cancer

When Robin was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December 2011, she knew that it would be a long journey for her fight against this cancer. Given the dysplastic changes in her bone marrow, standard chemotherapies were unlikely to give her a long-term remission or a cure. Her best chance was to receive an allogeneic (donor) transplant. However, neither of her siblings were a match to her. The only option was to find a suitable matched donor through the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP). First, Robin had to undergo several rounds of chemotherapy prior to being considered for transplant. By June 2012, she went into clinical remission and learned that one (the only one) 10/10 fully matched donor had been identified through the NMDP. Robin then received the conditioning regimen, followed by donor cell infusion in late July. At the time she received her life-saving cells, she only knew that they were from a young woman who lives in Europe. Even though she was still struggling with immediate post-transplant side effects, she managed to write thank-you notes in August, which she later found out did not reach her donor until December. Gradually, she recovered bit by bit and her leukemia was gone. Although she exchanged anonymous letters with her donor a few times, they were not allowed to reveal their private information until two years after transplant. By the end of 2014, Robin finally learned that her donor was a woman named Sarah from Northern Germany. They started to exchange emails with personal information. However, the burden of translating English to German made it very difficult. After a few months of slow back-and-forth emails, Robin and Sarah declared their wish to meet in person, and of course, in Germany. Armed with a short course in German, Robin and her husband flew to Hamburg in the Fall of 2015, before driving to the small farm village where Sarah lived. The first meeting occurred at the hotel lobby where Robin stayed. Robin and Sarah looked at each other unbelievingly and then collapsed into a long embrace. The following days, Sarah hosted Robin and her husband in her family home. They spent time with Sarah’s and her husband’s families, toured neighboring villages and visited Sarah’s favorite resort town on the Baltic Sea. To Robin, this trip also meant some answers. The first one was how Sarah decided to join the donor program. It turned out that there were two boys in the neighboring towns needing donors for transplant, which prompted donor drives in the preceding years. Unfortunately, neither boy found a suitable donor. Robin also wanted to know why Sarah decided to donate even though she was scared and the timing was not ideal. Sarah’s answer was so matter-of-fact, “What else is there than to help another human?” After the four-day reunion of these two lives that had intertwined forever through this life-saving procedure, Robin returned home feeling peaceful and fulfilled. To this date, Robin and Sarah continue to communicate on a daily basis. Each year, Stanford BMT program performs about 90-95 allogeneic transplants with hematopoietic stem cells from an unrelated donor just like Sarah. Having a suitable donor through the NMDP can mean a life-saving event. Currently, approximately 27 million potential donors are accessible either within the United States network or by International registry. If you are interested in becoming a potential donor, please visit NMDP website at

Robin with Sarah in Germany

Robin with her “Chimera”, the stuffed animal she had made to symbolize her story.