Sharon Berger, 65, of London was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) in 2012, and was told that the only available cure was a stem cell transplant from an unrelated donor.
A global search was launched - dubbed the #Spit4Mum campaign - and a matching donor was found within weeks which meant Sharon had an apparently successful transplant in May 2013.
But sadly, last week, a routine blood test revealed that, despite a successful transplant, the aggressive nature of her illness means the cancer has returned. Doctors have now told the family that Sharon has just six weeks before she needs a second transplant.
‘It means that her body has not responded to the anonymous matching donor which seemed to have saved her life, and now needs another transplant,’ explains her son Jonni, who - together with his sister Caroline - spearheaded the 2013 #Spit4Mum campaign, which led to a 1,100 per cent increase in the number of British Jews registering as donors.
Blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan is now searching the world’s combined stem cell registries for someone whose tissue type matches Sharon’s. But the search is proving difficult because of Sharon’s combination of rare tissue types.
Because of Sharon's Jewish heritage, her best match is likely to be an Ashkenazi Jew. But the family are encouraging everyone who is eligible to join the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow register, as a potential match.
‘This means that if we can find Mum another match in the next six weeks, there is a good chance that she will have a second chance at life post-transplant,’ says Jonni.
Sharon celebrated her 65th birthday only a few weeks ago, and recently saw the birth of her second grandchild. ‘We're all in a state of shock. It's always in the back of your mind that it could come back, but we thought we were in the clear. We got used to the good times,’ adds Jonni.
Sharon is being treated in isolation at Hammersmith Hospital and on Monday started a six-week course of chemotherapy.
If a donor isn’t found in the next six weeks, doctors may have no choice but to perform the transplant using stem cells from Jonni or Caroline - a procedure which has a much smaller chance of success because her children only share half her tissue type. Two thirds of UK patients who need a transplant cannot find a matching donor within their own family.
Asked how his mum was coping with the latest setback, Jonni said: ‘She was shocked too, of course, and worried, because she's fully aware of the situation and knows how painful the side effects can be, but she's resilient and determined. She's prepared for the challenge. Let's hope the community can rise to the challenge too.’
Ann O'Leary, Head of Register Development at Anthony Nolan, said: ‘‘We’re extremely saddened to hear that Sharon’s cancer has returned and our thoughts are with her in her upcoming treatment. We will be doing all we can to support her and her family in the search for a donor.
‘Sharon and her family have made an incredible contribution to the register by raising awareness among the Jewish community, and as a result they achieved a well-deserved special commendation for BAME Advocate of the Year at the Anthony Nolan Supporter Awards in 2013.
To join our register, you must be aged 16-30, in good health and weigh at least 50kg. We are particularly looking for people from Jewish and other ethnic minority backgrounds to join, as they are currently underrepresented on the donor register.’
Sharon's son, Jonni, adds, ‘It really is a race against time - in six weeks' time she will need a bone marrow transplant, and a good match has not yet been found.’
To sign up, you simply fill in a short application form and provide a small saliva sample.