A year ago this month, local boy Gaige Thigpen heard devastating news. After a hard-fought battle with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, his cancer had returned. The relapse forced him to spend months in Philadelphia undergoing a unique medical treatment called CAR T-cell therapy.
But two intensive treatments, meant to rebuild Gaige’s current T-cells—good cells that help the immune system fight sickness—proved unsuccessful. While disappointed, the 10-year-old’s mom Serena Hernandez wasn’t defeated.
In order to save her son’s life, she said she had to press on; she had to prepare for the possibility of a bone marrow transplant, Gaige’s last and only treatment option.
The CAR T-cell therapy was meant to attack Gaige’s B-cells. If it had worked, the B-cells—good or bad—would’ve stayed away at least six months; however, some healthy B-cells returned after one month, Hernandez said.
While there’s currently not an immediate need for a transplant—since Gaige is in remission—the future could prove otherwise.
“If he’s to relapse, then his only option is transplant,” Hernandez said, “but we know that Gaige doesn’t have a match right now if that were to happen. I’m trying to be proactive.”
His relapse last July occurred just two months after celebrating his first remission. Luckily, Gaige again entered remission this past September.
Hernandez said his doctors at MUSC and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have collaborated and determined Gaige undergo a two-year maintenance chemotherapy while he’s in a remission season.
In the meantime, the family is on a mission to find him a bone marrow match and are planning a free community event Saturday in connection with Be the Match, the national bone marrow donor program. The effort is set for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at William Reeves Elementary School in Summerville.
A Be the Match representative will be on hand with free swab kits, and individuals can register on site for a free kit. Individuals ages 18 to 44 are urged to attend—younger donors typically better matches, according to bethematch.org.
What are the stats?
Medical experts use the swabs to compare specific protein markers in cells of a healthy person and cells of a person needing a transplant. On average, only about 1 in 430 donors will actually donate, according to stats provided by Be the Match.
While Hernandez said a half match—called a haploidentical transplant—is still a possibility for Gaige, it’s not the preferred option because it offers a lower cure rate of 50 to 60 percent.
“It’s just scary,” she said. “His body can reject it.”
Gaige already has four partial matches, including Hernandez. Though she has no idea why, she said many markers in his cells point to Italian roots.
Ironically, relatives aren’t always the solution for cancer patients. Only 30 percent of patients needing a bone marrow transplant find complete matches in their families, according to the Institute for Justice (IJ).
Not only do the majority of bone marrow transplant patients rely on the national registry for a donor, but odds of a match being a willing donor are only 65 percent for Caucasians. The percentages are reduced for other races, according to ij.org.
At least 3,000 cancer patients die annually because they have no donor; on the other hand, there have been no deaths to date among the 35,00-plus matches who have donated.
While the last two years Gaige’s life has been riddled with health challenges, he and his family have stayed positive—Gaige focusing on his love of baseball, and all of them finding comfort and support in the community. The family’s hopeful mindset is the key to their challenging season and why they said the upcoming event could also help save others' lives.
“If they aren’t the match for Gaige, they could possibly be the hero for someone else in need,” Hernandez said of those who register.
While Gaige remains confident the cancer won't return, Hernandez is still prepping for a worst case scenario, especially since he's considered a "high-risk" patient.
“As a mom, I need to be doing my work on the back end while he lives his best life,” she said. “He is so super strong. I just think that he doesn’t accept cancer. ...He’ll say, ‘Mom, the cancer’s not coming back.’ He’s already claimed it.”
The event will also feature carnival games, face painting and food trucks. For more information, visit Gaige’s BAD TO THE BONE Marrow Registry Event on Facebook.