April 9, 2021
People & Places

Bone marrow transplant success: One in a million

Each day is a blessing for Middleton’s Tania Murphy, who spent most of a year away from her family to receive a life-saving bone marrow transplant from an anonymous European donor.

Tania Murphy with Kalan, 8, Tayla, 11, and husband Chris at their Middleton home.

There are few people on the south coast who haven’t been touched in some way by the Murphy family. Yoga teacher Tania and blacksmith Chris live in a historic 1800s cottage at the entrance to Middleton, where Chris’ steel sculptures of sunflowers, pelicans and a kangaroo are visible from the main road. The happy family are known for their optimistic outlook.

“We’re just positive people, and I think that’s in our makeup,” says Tania. In 2016, Tania was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) – a form of cancer that affects the bone marrow. Although chemotherapy is used as treatment, the cancer cannot be overcome without a bone marrow transplant.

Aged 44 and with her children Kalan, 4, and Tayla, 7, at the time of her diagnosis, Tania was determined to do whatever she could to stay healthy in the hope of finding a matching donor.

More than 35 million people are registered with bone marrow registries worldwide, yet none were compatible with Tania, as her European and Irish heritage significantly lessened the odds of a match.

Friends set up a campaign to encourage people to join the registry, particularly those between 18 and 30 because of their healthy stem cells. Tania’s story captured the attention of celebrities such as Lorde and J.K. Rowling, who shared one of Tania’s social media posts, while Tania appeared on television promoting awareness of the donor registry.

After a few rounds of chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission, but Tania relapsed in 2019. She spent Christmas at home with her family and was admitted to the RAH emergency department to start another round of chemo on January 1, 2020.

Tania received a bone marrow transplant on March 11, 2020.

Chris’ eyes grow misty as he recalls the moment Tania’s haematologist entered her room in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, sat down on the edge of her bed and delivered news that the couple had been waiting three years to hear: “We’re looking at a Matched Unrelated Donor,” he said.

“What sort of match are we talking about here?” asked Chris, to which Tania also questioned: “10 out of 10?”

“The doctor said, ‘Yep, 10 out of 10’,” Chris remembers. “We high-fived and I started crying.” After almost four years without a match, it was incredible timing, yet so much still had to go right.

“Up until those cells arrive in your room, the donor can pull out; which is quite nerve-wracking,” Tania says.

“The chemo’s really intense before a transplant; it burns your mouth, your throat and your stomach.”

Stem cells were extracted from the anonymous male donor in Europe and arrived at the Royal Adelaide Hospital two days later on March 11 – a date referred to as the recipient’s “rebirth day”.

“It’s a fascinating process just getting the cells from wherever they are in the world to where the recipient is,” says Chris. “A courier flies across the world with a little esky of life-saving cells inside.”

Although the timing was lucky for Tania, Australia closed its borders the following week, which meant stem cell couriers were no longer able to travel. Hundreds of Australians rely on international stem cell donors each year, and the pandemic threw the fragile international donor system into chaos.

“There were people I met on that transplant ward that had to go for different options because there was no guarantee their stem cells would be able to get here from overseas,” Tania says.

Tania receiving chemotherapy treatment about one year ago.

It means that young Australians are desperately needed to join the donor registry, which simply involves a saliva swab test.

Because of her compromised immune system, Tania didn’t see Kalan or Tayla for four weeks after the transplant. She spent several weeks recovering at Leukaemia Foundation Village and a total of 10 months away from home. “There was a lot of time apart that year,” she says.

The donor’s healthy blood-forming cells were given directly into Tania’s bloodstream, where they could begin to function and multiply. To date, the donor cells unfortunately haven’t taken over Tania’s cells entirely. However, her donor gave a large amount of surplus stem cells, which have been frozen, and she may require a further top-up of additional cells this month.

Tania says Chris is her soulmate and her rock, looking after Tayla and Kalan and even renovating the house and building a veggie garden.

“It’s made our relationship stronger, but we have always been tight. We’re a really good team,” Chris says.

Meanwhile, their parents agree that Tayla and Kalan have shown incredible personal growth over the past four years. “It must be really hard for them to even just try to get their head around it. We didn’t keep anything from them, but when Tan was right in the middle of treatment, we didn’t want them to see what she was going through. They knew that mum was really unwell and had to be at hospital to get better,” Chris says.

“There were a few times that I was at my wit’s end and the kids just stepped up and helped with doing dishes and cooking dinner and taking washing off the line – all the little things that have to be done. Most kids don’t even think about it, but they jumped in and helped; they’re incredible. I think they would be different people if they hadn’t had a mum going through what she has.”

The couple has lived at Middleton for 15 years, with a workshop where Chris runs his blacksmithing business Blue Temper Ironworks. His iconic Wave of The Day sculpture is publicly installed at the Middleton Point car park and is well-recognised by surfers. In a small step towards normality, Chris has just started working again.

The family at home, where Tania has been soaking up the fresh air.

“It feels good to just bash some steel. I had a surf too, which I think was the first time in almost a year, so it was awesome to get back in the water,” he says.

“It’s nice to have an acre here at Middleton, and I can see Tan lapping that up now that she’s home. As soon as she gets up, she walks outside and stands there to soak up the morning sun and does laps of the house.”

Tania says she is grateful for every day. “In the transplant ward they have special filtered air and you’re not allowed outside because you’ve got no immune system. Now I go outside each day just to see trees and the ocean and breathe the fresh air,” she says.

“I’m really into healthy eating and juicing, turmeric, herbs and cancer-fighting foods. You want to give it your best crack from every angle: mind, body and spirit.

“I will always be more wary about lifestyle choices, food and everything that I do; pausing and flowing rather than pushing and going. I love meditation, relaxation, mindfulness and trying to stay in the present.”

Donors and recipients are kept anonymous from each other until a set time after the transplant. The Murphy family wrote a thank you card to the European donor, and they hope to visit him in Europe for Tania’s 50th birthday, if he agrees to meet.

“It’s been a crazy and challenging year, but we’ve had some incredible wins and good luck,” Tania says. “You can go to very dark places, because there were some really very intense times. When you’re locked up in hospital, it’s the little things that you take for granted and you realise how precious life is.”

Chris and Tania are deeply grateful for the selfless act of someone on the other side of the world that has given Tania a second chance.

“We live in this beautiful place and we just need to be mindful of that,” Chris says.

“The challenge now is getting back to a new normal that’s more spacious and filled with a lot of joy.”

 

Each year in Australia, around 15,000 people are diagnosed with blood cancers. Currently, the Bone Marrow Donor Registry cannot meet the demand and is urging people to register. For more information, visit strengthtogive.org.au/register

This story first appeared in the February 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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