Manny Valdes es un luchador. A warrior who takes on life with a positive attitude and an optimistic heart. A proud father of two. A die-hard Miami Hurricanes fan. A Cuban raised in Miami, he is 42 years old and currently on his second round of chemo. In February, Manny was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
Acute Myeloid Leukemia, or AML, is a rapidly-progressing disease in which excess undeveloped white blood cells build up in the blood and bone marrow. Myeloid cells stunt the production of normal white blood cells, making it difficult for the body to naturally fight off disease. AML is life-altering illness. From diagnosis to treatment to reaching remission, every step is hard, Manny explains. “It took 5 weeks to figure out what was wrong. After a pelvic CT found irregularities in my bones and a CT/PET scan of my whole body lit up like a Christmas Tree, I had a biopsy of my pelvic bone and it was concluded I have AML. A couple of days after the biopsy I meet with Dr. James Foran (My Oncologist) he was surprised to see me walking and talking based on my CT/PET scan that showed AML in basically in 100% of my bones. He said you have 4 months to live if we don’t get started.”
Many endured 27 rough days of in the hospital, taking chemo 24 hours a day for 7 days straight. He dealt with symptoms such as weakness, muscle pains, and weight loss. “During this first tour as I like to call it, I lost 40 pounds and a lot of my muscle mass. In the hospital I had to start walking again with a walker to regain the strength in my legs. When I got home I was dealing with a lot muscle pain in my legs and arms due to atrophy.”
However, it is difficult to achieve complete remission upon initial treatment. After only 2 weeks at home, Manny had to return for his “2nd tour at the hospital.” This time, it was 6 days of intense Chemotherapy. “I did a lot of walking (laps around the hospital floor) and I had a stationary bike in my room. I told myself I am not going to lose any muscle mass this time. When you get Chemo at some point your body numbers get very low and you don’t have an immune system for several days until your body kinda reboots itself and starts producing white blood cells and ANC (Absolute Neutrophil Count) your first line of defense to fight infections.”
Despite the profound effect of leukemia on both the patient and their family, Manny Valdes is back stronger and more hopeful than ever. Because there is a cure.
AML can be treated with chemotherapy, drugs, or a bone marrow transplant. In a bone marrow transplant, stem cells from a donor are transplanted into the patient to completely replace the immune system with a new, healthy system capable of combating any cancerous cells that remain. The body will only accept these foreign stem cells if the donor’s tissue type closely matches the patient’s. Tissue type is inherited, like hair and eye color, so the best chance of a match is someone from the same ethnicity. Because there are not enough people of Latino ethnicity registered as donors, 55% of Latino cancer patients never find matching donors.
A stem-cell transplant is Manny’s only chance for a cure. Manny has not yet been able to find a match for bone marrow. The problem is that there are not enough donors with Cuban background in the bone marrow registry. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a match—someone out there is his match!
Manny Valdes and his family remain hopeful that a lifesaving donor will be found. “I am feeling better than ever as I rebuild my strength. I have biopsy next Tuesday to see if the AML is in remission and wait for a Bone Marrow Donor,” he says, “After the Biopsy I am going to try and return to a normal life, work and kids till I need to go back and get a transplant.”
The procedure that determines if one is a match for bone marrow is a simple SWAB on the inside of the cheek. Once a match is found, the next step for the donor is a physical exam and a safe needle draw of fluids under anesthesia.
It only takes this simple test to identify the stem cells that will save Manny Valdes’s life. Which is why Manny is collaborating with the Cuban Heritage Organization, as well as the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, to reach out to the Latino community and find a donor. If you or anyone you know is willing to SWAB for Manny in hopes of finding the right match, please join the Gift of Life Marrow Registry today. Donors should be 18 to 45 years old, generally healthy, and U.S. citizens. Prospective donors may visit the Gift of Life web page and have a SWAB kit mailed to them. The Gift of Life page also contains updates about live swabbing events in Florida.
Somebody out there holds the gift of life in the blood that runs through their veins. By registering as a bone marrow donor, you could help people like Manny have a second chance at life. It’s time to be a hero.