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Mai Duong: The Familiar Face of Cellular Therapy

The face of cellular therapy in Quebec is without a doubt Mai Duong. The images from 2014 of a sick and fragile woman with leukemia sitting on her hospital bed and desperately waiting for a compatible donor touched the hearts of people in Quebec and beyond. Her poignant story caught the media’s attention and, in the middle of her ordeal, Mai found the strength to talk about her cause and give interviews to the media. Today, it is no exaggeration to say that her battle with leukemia has made the public more aware of cellular therapy and the importance of stem cell donations. And her involvement in the cause is still a priority for her.
Now that she has recovered, Mai feels great appreciation to everyone who provided invaluable support to her during a time when she was so vulnerable.

When cancer strikes

Mai was blindsided with cancer in 2013. Already the mom to a little girl, Alice, Mai was pregnant at the time and didn’t have any worries about her health. “I had a cold that wouldn’t go away. But sometimes pregnancy makes your immune system a bit weak.” Her doctor, however, was worried. A series of tests confirmed that Mai had leukemia.
“When I found out I had cancer, everything happened so quickly. I had to interrupt my pregnancy and undergo treatment in the space of a few days.” She received a series of conventional treatments as an inpatient and then for six months as an outpatient. The outcome for this young advertising professional was remission.

This gave her hope of returning to a normal life. “Between my remission and recurrence ten months later, I didn’t have any symptoms.”

When her cancer came back, it was like a shockwave. “The recurrence of my disease was even harder to manage than the first episode. The first time around, you don't know what’s waiting for you.” Here, Mai referred to how hard her treatments were, because the only way to kill the cancer was to kill her immune system, which forced her to live in isolation indefinitely. “When you’re put in isolation, you don’t know for how long or when you’ll get your family or your life back.”

Fortunately, Mai received first-rate care at Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont from staff who are not only highly skilled professionals but also very caring and supportive. Mai knew that a stem cell transplant was the only thing that could save her. But finding a donor was a major obstacle. “The first choice and the one most likely to work was a donation from a family member. After my cancer came back, I found out that my doctors had already tested my brother and, unfortunately, he wasn’t a compatible match.”

The search for a compatible donor

Once this first option was ruled out, Mai’s doctors started looking for a compatible donor outside the family. Mai, who is of Vietnamese heritage, faced a great challenge, as “the chances of finding a compatible donor in my community were very small and, in the end, we didn't find one.” This unfruitful search came after an intensive campaign that included a Facebook page that Mai created with some of her advertising friends to get help from the public. Many people, particularly members of the Vietnamese community, responded to the appeal. In the end, a compatible donor wasn’t found for Mai, whose condition was deteriorating. In fall 2014, something had to be done to save her life.

“We had to resort to the third and last option of a stem cell transplant with umbilical cord blood.”

A cutting-edge technique

This state-of-the-art technique has brought a lot of hope to patients but is not a guarantee. “Cord blood only has a small number of stem cells, and the risk of rejection is high. On the other hand, blood cord cells are also naïve, which means they have the potential to be better accepted by the host. This technique was a good option for me despite the small number of cells because I’m not very tall.”

The procedure was indeed a success. “I had some complications, such as pneumonia and intestinal and skin problems. I was even hospitalized briefly. But overall my side effects were well controlled and relatively limited. And I recovered more quickly than my doctors thought I would. Normally, the recovery period is from six to eight weeks, but I was discharged after four.” However, Mai did have to be careful for a long time to avoid infections.

Although today she is completely healthy and has no traces of cancer in her blood, this young mom knows that the disease could always recur. “The first two years are crucial, as this is when the disease generally comes back. You’re considered to be in full remission from leukemia after five years, but the first two are key. So I have a few more months to go...”

She has spent these anxious months living a full and active life, and she is deeply involved in raising awareness about cellular therapy research. For example, she’s on a patient-doctor team for the “Roulons pour la thérapie cellulaire” bike challenge, which will be held on September 10 near Mont Orford. “I think that patients need to get involved and that the patient-doctor partnership is very important.”

  • 17-06-2016


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