November is National Bone Marrow Donor Awareness month. For one Junction City resident, her awareness of the need for donors increased this past summer as she learned more about bone marrow than she ever wanted.
Brooke Keeling, owner of JC GymTastics, learned on July 28 that she has leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant. The life-saving procedure is scheduled for Nov. 6, but twice before she was scheduled for a transplant and it was halted.
“I was really fortunate to have four donors that pulled up automatically for me due to my heritage,” she said. “It’s more European so, it's not as rare as some people that are still waiting for a donor. But we are on our third donor now.”
Both times previously, the donor received a medical deferment within days of the scheduled procedure. Keeling said she is not sure what caused the problem because all donors are anonymous but she is hoping the third time will be the charm. All she knows about the third donor is that it’s a 22-year-old female who is driving in from out of state to potentially save her life.
“We're hitting that timeline where I'm running out of time,” she said. “If that donor falls through my oldest son will be my donor. He's actually a match.”
But that match isn’t as strong. Whereas the other three were 100%, her son is only 50%.
Every time a donor falls through it's another round of chemo and Keeling has now been through three rounds.
“It kind of keeps the cancer away but it doesn't keep it away long enough where you can just go home,” she said.
What makes Keeling’s situation unique is that in addition to the Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia she has Philadelphia B Cells.
“That's one of the reasons why I don't have a choice on a transplant,” she said. “I won't survive without it.”
Even with a transplant there are no guarantees; survival rate with a transplant is 65%, she said.
“I'm going to count on God for that one,” she said.
According to WebMD B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a cancer that affects the "B lymphocytes" — white blood cells that grow in the soft center of your bones, called marrow.
“B lymphocytes are supposed to grow into cells that help you fight infections,” the website states. “But in this disease, they turn into "leukemia" cells that live longer than normal cells and reproduce quickly. They build up in your bone marrow and move into your bloodstream. From there they can spread to other organs in your body.”
There is no cure but treatment can help people live longer.
“I was coaching and noticed I was getting short of breath,” she said. “Then come July I was helping my (then) fiancé move out of his house and I woke up one morning and I was covered in bruises — and I mean covered.”
Her first thought was anemia, which would explain her being so tired. She had always been athletic and busy — working two full time jobs and she had just earned her bachelor's in forensics from Washburn University. Only a year and a half earlier she opened her business.
It was without too much concern she went to the doctor.
“They went ahead and ran some panels,” she said. “Long story short, July 28, two days before my son's wedding, I found out I had leukemia.”
The day after the wedding she received a call from the oncologist who told her “’Time is of the essence. You need to leave today; we have a bed for you.’ I had 45 minutes to tell my kids.”
The blended family has nine children, seven between ages two and 13 who are still in the house.
She also had to contact her gymnastic instructors and her office manager, Erin Bradley.
“She's also a very good friend and she has done amazing,” Keeling said. “When I first found out, I had two volunteer coaches that I brought on, they had set hours of what they wanted to work. I had everything planned. And then I have to call them and say, ‘So, are you sure that you can't work just a few more hours a week, because I just found out I have this crazy thing called cancer.’”
For the rest of the summer, into the fall and soon winter, Keeling is watching life from a hospital window.
Besides extreme fatigue and dealing with the side effects of chemo, one of the hardest parts of the ordeal has been being stuck in the hospital in Kansas City and only coming home periodically for a few days at a time.
“I’ve never been away from my kids,” she said.
After the transplant she won’t be able to go home again for more than three months.
“I won’t have any immune system whatsoever,” she said. “I will have to stay in isolation for 100 days.”
After that she will continue chemo for about two years.
She said she explained to the children that she has to be away for three and half months to have a lifetime left with them.
“It’s going to be worth it; I just have to remind them of that,” she said.
Knowing that an anonymous person has volunteered to take her time, drive to Kansas City, and donate bone marrow so that a stranger — so that she — might live, chokes Keeling up.
“They're giving me my life back,” she said. “There's nothing I can say to thank them for that.”