For Ticia Hanisch, stem cell donation and donation awareness are ingrained in her story. In January 2018, she went in for a routine annual exam, but her blood work came back abnormal. In October of that year, she saw an oncologist who diagnosed her with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) with abnormal cells, called blasts, being at 6%. Two weeks later she was transferred to MD Anderson, her blasts had increased to 28% and she was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia — which gave her less than a 20% chance of surviving.
Though the specific genetic mutation qualified her for a clinical trial, her blood counts never recovered in it. Her only hope for survival was a stem cell transplant from an anonymous donor, which she received in August 2019. Today, her immune system is 95% recovered and for all intents and purposes, she is cancer-free.
Ever since Hanisch’s devastating diagnosis, miraculous donor match and transplant success, she uses her story to spread awareness of how ordinary individuals can potentially save a life, starting with a 3-minute cheek swab. Anyone can register to become a donor and if matched, recruitment non-profits will absorb the costs associated. The process requires the donor to pass a physical, undergo five days of shots to increase blood stem cells, travel to a blood collection center and undergo the blood draw that lasts “2.5 Netflix movies” according to Hanisch. A small price to pay for stem cells that can and will save a life.
After losing several loved ones to this deadly disease called cancer, upon receiving her diagnosis, Hanisch was in a state of shock. However, she shares that “being scared and being positive are not mutually exclusive,” and she persevered through the treatment journey, which has required 24 bone marrow biopsies to date and pre-treatment for the transplant that dwindles your immune system to that of an infant.
“I ended up with three matches. As a [white person], I had a 79% chance of finding a stem cell donor match. In 1992, my brother was in his early 40s with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. His possibility of finding a match would be like winning the lottery. With more people willing to become donors, more lives will be saved,” said Hanisch.
According to nonprofit registry Be The Match, on average, Native American people have a 60% chance, Hispanic or Latino people have a 48% chance, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have a 50% chance and African Americans have a 28% chance of finding a match. With this knowledge, Hanisch emphasizes the importance for people of all ethnicities to become donors.
After corresponding anonymously for two years, Hanisch and her donor, Dominik, signed an agreement that stated they would be willing to meet. After a virtual encounter while COVID and Hanisch’s recovery barred her from international travel, the pair finally met face to face in March of this year. “How do you tell the person that has given you a second chance at life, ‘Thank you’? We hugged; we cried. It was beautiful, uplifting and was a surreal, exciting and wonderful experience,” Hanisch said about the life-altering moment.
With overwhelming gratitude for her second chance at life, it is in this vein that Hanisch urges others to join the donor registry for a chance to give the same. “If I can encourage them or inspire them; if I can give them that friendly, helpful nudge, I would love to be that person.”