A tale of two transplants
By sharing their stories, stem cell recipients Moneet Mann and Trish Ganam help recruit new potential stem cell donors and raise funds for Canada’s Lifeline
Trish Ganam and Moneet Mann have followed very different roads to health after life-threatening illness. But they had one life-changing treatment in common: a stem cell transplant.
“I was beyond fortunate to receive my stem cell transplant from my sister, who was a perfect match,” shares Trish.
But Trish knows most patients do not share her luck in finding a match within their own families. That includes Moneet, whose unrelated stem cell donor — a complete stranger — was identified through Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry.
“I’m living proof their donation made all the difference,” Moneet says.
Today, both women feel grateful to be in a position to support other patients. They’re doing it through Canada’s Lifeline — Trish as a volunteer and fundraiser, and Moneet as an employee of Canadian Blood Services. They share their stories widely to encourage every eligible person in Canada to join the registry as a potential donor, and to donate stem cells if matched to a patient in need.
A patient’s best hope of a match is in a donor of similar ethnic background, so we need patients of all backgrounds to join. Our registry also connects patients with donors from around the world, through its links with counterparts in other countries.
Today, more than 1,000 Canadians are waiting for their own lifesaving transplant. They are the inspiration for Trish’s campaign to recruit prospective stem cell donors and fundraise, using a new online platform which anyone can use to start a campaign of their own.
Trish’s journey to transplant had many twists and turns
Trish was a busy mom of two with an active career when her life took a sharp and unexpected turn. As a regular runner, she started to notice it was getting harder to regain her breath after her daily exercise. When her symptoms grew to include a rash and severe swelling in her lymph nodes in 2009, she sought help at a hospital emergency room in her hometown of Edmonton, Alta.
She was shocked when doctors told her that based on a series of lymph node and bone marrow biopsies, they were confident she had a cancer called Hodgkin’s lymphoma — and that it was already at stage four, the most advanced stage. Her samples would need to be sent to Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Institute to confirm the findings, and her medical team said they would call her as soon as possible to discuss treatment.
Weeks later, after making a game plan with her family for how they would get through her ordeal together — including many conversations with her young children — Trish received more shocking news: the initial diagnosis may have been wrong.
Trish Ganam, right, and her husband Shaye Ganam, left, with their two children. This photo was taken in late 2008, shortly before Trish’s health struggles began.
So began a years-long long period of uncertainty for Trish and her family, as medical experts sought answers.
“At that point, the doctors were just doing all they could to manage my symptoms,” says Trish. She was treated with high doses of a corticosteroid, prednisone, but her doctors knew that prolonged use could cause organ damage.
It took several years, and a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, for Trish to be diagnosed with Hypereosinophilic syndrome (HES). This group of uncommon blood disorders is characterized by an excessive number of eosinophils, or white blood cells, which can enter various tissues and cause serious damage to organs. For most patients with HES, the cause is unknown.
“Typically, HES can be treated with measures including corticosteroids and chemotherapy agents, which we tried,” says Trish. “Eventually we came to the end of the line with what was available and there was one option left: a stem cell transplant.”
After more than six years of treatment with prednisone, as well as with some other medications that failed to help, Trish remembers feeling excited about the prospect of a stem cell transplant — which would essentially give her a whole new immune system and a fresh start.
“The doctors explained that they would try and find a match within my family first, and there was a 25 per cent chance someone would be a match,” shares Trish. “They sent test kits to my brother in Ontario, and my sister in Sydney, Australia, but it was my sister Christi in Sherwood Park — just outside Edmonton — who turned out to be the best match.
“I’ll never forget being with her when they told us she was an identical 10/10 match. There were many happy tears shed that afternoon.”
Trish’s sister Christi Ross, right, was a perfect match for her stem cell transplant. In recognition of Trish’s recruit-and-raise campaign, Christi took to Facebook to share how the simple decision to become a stem cell donor saves lives like her sister’s.
For Trish, the preparation to receive the stem cell transplant in 2015 was harrowing, as was the long road to recovery — which included a life-threatening transplant complication called Graft versus Host disease (GvHD). She credits Christi, as well as Canada’s Lifeline donors who continue to supply her with the blood products her immune system needs to function, with both saving her life and allowing her to thrive today.
Christi was also moved to share her thoughts about the donation experience with friends on Facebook, despite “an aversion to taking credit for things.”
“It didn’t cause pain for me, although there were unbearable days for someone else. That someone else was my sister!” says Christi.
“I saved her life, but she did all the work. She is here today because I was her stem cell donor, and you could be that person for someone else.”
Turning to community to make a difference for other patients
Trish’s online campaign for Canadian Blood Services invites people to pledge to join the stem cell registry if they are between the ages of 17 and 35. After making the pledge on her campaign page, participants receive an email prompting them to complete the registration process on blood.ca. Those who do will receive a free and easy test kit. It takes just a few minutes to complete and is totally painless, as it simply involves swabbing the inside of one’s cheeks to collect cells. Registrants mail the kit back to us free of charge for analysis (the results of which are used to determine potential patient matches). Their pledge will also be added to Trish’s tally of pledges.
If someone is outside the eligible age group, or would like to support patients in an additional way, the platform also makes it easy for participants to make a financial donation. Such donations can help Canadian Blood Services recruit more potential stem cell donors, or fuel important research initiatives aimed at improving outcomes for stem cell recipients. Trish aims to raise $2,000 through her campaign.
Trish’s family and community have been supporting her campaign and helping to educate others about the importance of growing the stem cell registry — which, at the heart of it, is what her recruit-and-raise campaign is all about.
Trish’s son and daughter, now adults, recently joined the registry themselves. And Trish’s husband, Shaye Ganam, has also been spreading the word on a daily talk radio show he hosts on 630 CHED AM in Alberta. In fact, this February he interviewed Moneet Mann about her experience receiving a stem cell transplant, and about Canadian Blood Services’ call for more stem cell registrants.
“When I heard Shaye interview Moneet on the radio, a lot of memories came flooding back,” says Trish. “Including memories of a father we met during my transplant process, who never found a match. Not within Canada, not overseas, not within his own family.
“Now, I just want to do everything I can to show people how easy it is to join the registry — or at the very least make a financial gift to support it — and what the outcome can be: saving a life.”
Trish in Vancouver in September 2021. Because of Canada’s Lifeline donors who continue to supply Trish with the blood products her immune system needs to function, she is able to get back to one of her passions, travelling with family.
Two-time transplant recipient, Moneet, relied on a ‘complete stranger’
The first part of Moneet’s story is a lot like Trish’s. In June 2013, she was training for her first five-kilometre race for charity when she started to notice she wasn’t well. By August, on race day, she barely made it over the finish line.
Months later, when she could hardly manage the seven-minute walk home from her university class, and began experiencing peripheral vision loss, her loved ones grew very concerned. Her best friend, Natasha, and her then-boyfriend, Nav, insisted she seek medical advice.
“I’ll never forget when the doctor told me I had leukemia. I was 23 and at university in Thunder Bay, far away from my family,” shares Moneet.
Thankfully, shortly after her family arrived in the northern Ontario town, her doctor arranged for her to begin receiving treatment in Toronto, closer to family. That was Thanksgiving weekend in 2013.
Between October and December 2013, Moneet received countless red blood and platelet transfusions and had chemotherapy to treat her acute myeloid leukemia (AML). AML is a rapidly developing cancer of the blood and bone marrow that stops white blood cells — the blood cells that help your body fight infection — from maturing like they’re supposed to.
Unfortunately, in January 2014 she was told that her leukemia was too aggressive, and she would need a stem cell transplant to survive.
Moneet Mann in 2013, shortly after being admitted to the hospital for chemotherapy to treat her acute myeloid leukemia.
“I remember the doctor telling me I was more likely to find a match from someone who shares my ethnic background,” says Moneet. “It wasn’t until he started sharing some broad stats with me about the number of South Asian people currently on the registry that I started to feel concerned.”
Like Trish, Moneet was told they’d look for a match among her three siblings first. Regrettably, none was a match for her.
“They all wanted to help so badly, they were devastated that they weren’t able to,” recalls Moneet. “That’s when I knew it was game on and we really started campaigning.”
In addition to her family’s regular group blood donations, they also began actively recruiting for the stem cell registry within the Greater Toronto Area’s South Asian community, in the hope that one of those new registrants would be a match for Moneet or others. A social media awareness campaign called ‘will you marrow me?’ helped Moneet and her family get the attention of thousands of people, several of whom took the first step to get swabbed and join the adult stem cell registry.
Months after Moneet launched her campaign, Canadian Blood Services was able to identify a matching stem cell donor for her in Germany, through our connections with a network of international registries. She received a transplant in June 2014, followed by a second with cells from the same donor in December 2015, after her leukemia relapsed.
“I am here today because of a complete stranger in this world,” says Moneet. “I am grateful to them every day for the gift of being able to see my nieces and nephews grow up, to get married to Nav.”
Moneet and her husband, Nav, on their honeymoon in Hawaii, years after her second stem cell transplant. Moneet’s anonymous donor was from Germany.
Thriving and making a difference
Since Moneet and her family launched the ‘will you marrow me?’ campaign in 2014, the percentage of registrants of South Asian heritage on Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry has grown from just over two per cent, to almost seven per cent. But as a Canadian Blood Services employee who now helps recruit potential donors herself, Moneet knows there’s still work to be done. Potential donors of Indigenous, Asian, South Asian, Hispanic, Black, and mixed-race backgrounds make up only 33 per cent of the registry’s total.
As for Trish, she hopes her recruit-and-raise campaign will help make many more people aware of the stem cell registry, and how they can make a difference — whether as a stem cell registrant or financial donor — no matter their age or health status.
“I’m a stem cell transplant recipient who has the privilege of hearing my family fill our home with music again, to begin to travel with my husband again. I want others to have that same second chance that I did, and this is one way to do that.”
If you’re between the ages of 17 – 35, consider joining the stem cell registry, or — no matter your age — launch your own fundraising campaign at blood.ca/recruit-and-raise to give hope to the more than 1,000 Canadian patients waiting for a stem cell transplant.
To learn more about the many ways to show up and make a difference for patients, visit blood.ca/ways-donate.