Local cancer survivor unites with stem cell donor

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For several different reasons, August 18, 2015, is a day that Donnie Lewis of Canton will not soon forget.

That evening, Lewis and his family, including his wife, Jean, and sons Donovan and Brendan, were invited to Fenway Park as special guests of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Boston Red Sox. Prior to the game, in front of 32,000 fans, Lewis, a recent cancer survivor, was brought onto the field to meet his stem cell donor, a 21-year-old U.S. Navy midshipman from California named Daniel Alcantor.

Donnie Lewis (right) with Daniel Alcantor (DFCI photo)

Donnie Lewis (right) with Daniel Alcantor (DFCI photo)

“I didn’t want to make a big deal about it, but it was really a thrill for me,” Lewis said of his memorable night at Fenway, which included throwing out the ceremonial first pitch alongside Alcantor. “It was surreal. It was like a dream.”

The meeting, according to Lewis, had been Dana-Farber’s idea, and while he generally prefers to keep a much lower profile than that, he decided it would be worth it if he could help raise awareness about the National Marrow Donor Program and the importance of joining the registry.

“There are certainly people who are worse off than I am,” he said. “But then I figured that if this gives people the knowledge that would incite them to join the registry, then this would be a good thing.”

The way that Lewis sees it, even one more donor can make a world of difference to somebody, and in his case that person was Alcantor — the only perfect tissue-type match out of 25 million available donors across dozens of national registries worldwide.

At the time he signed up, Alcantor was just barely out of high school and not necessarily thinking about saving lives. As he relayed to Lewis at their face-to-face meeting, he happened to be at a concert and had jumped into a bone marrow donor line as an excuse to talk to an “attractive young lady.” By the time he reached the front of the line, he agreed to get swabbed for a sample, and six months later he received an email that informed him that he was a match.

“It just goes to illustrate the importance of becoming a member of the registry,” said Lewis, who appreciated that Alcantor was just a regular guy like himself. “In my case he was the only match out of 25 million people. That’s what it came down to, so literally this guy saved my life.”

As it turned out, Lewis was fortunate in other ways as well, as he also received world-class medical care from his oncology team at Dana-Farber.

A former boxer who had always stayed physically fit and active, he was initially blindsided when he received the diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia — an aggressive form of blood and bone marrow cancer — in October of 2013.

He had been experiencing severe fatigue and just had a strange feeling that “something wasn’t right.” So he made an appointment to see his doctor, and after a series of blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy, he received the dreaded news.

“It was tough,” Lewis said of the diagnosis. “It was tough to tell the kids, who were both very upset.”

Lewis said his doctors treated the cancer swiftly and aggressively, and on December 6, after nearly two months of inpatient chemotherapy at Dana-Farber, he received the news that he was in remission. Still, his doctors felt that a stem cell transplant would give him the best chance at long-term recovery, and he happily and willingly complied.

The next several months were arguably the toughest, however, as he battled various infections that landed him back in the hospital while also enduring multiple rounds of “tune-up” chemotherapy. And even after they found a match, it took a few months before Alcantor, who was studying at the U.S. Naval Academy, was available to schedule a donor appointment.

Finally, on April 26, 2014, Lewis received the new stem cells — which “looked like a bag of light pink blood” — and he has been on the road to recovery ever since.

Due to registry regulations, Lewis had to wait a year before he could learn the identity of his lifesaving donor, but it was certainly worth the wait, he said.

“The whole experience [at Fenway Park] was very nice,” said Lewis, “and I got to spend time with Daniel, who’s just a really good guy.”

Today, Lewis is healthy again and back to enjoying his family and his life. He still visits Dana-Farber for regular check-ups, although instead of going weekly he now goes just once every other month.

“I try not to focus on what happened in the past other than the great people that helped me and the great support network I had,” said Lewis. “Even when I got sick, I didn’t think long term. I just used to say, ‘Tomorrow will be better.’ To me, it’s about doing the best you can to be the best person you can be, and doing things in your life to make your family happy.”

For more information about the National Marrow Donor Program, visit www.bethematch.org.

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