Samantha McCullough, Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

2 Years Old at Diagnosis

Samantha McCulloughSamantha, an easy-going, fun-loving two and a half year old, had a round bruise on her cheek that lasted for two weeks. Then came small spots of blood on her pillow from nosebleeds. Those developed into even bigger spots. Finally, a fever brought Samantha to her doctor. Her mother, Mary V. McCullough (“MV”), insisted that the nosebleeds were not because Samantha was picking her nose. Eventually, the family doctor sent Samantha to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist who confirmed what MV already suspected – the nosebleeds were caused by nothing as innocent as a finger. Doctors drew blood that day and Samantha’s cancer journey began.

The day after Samantha had her blood drawn, the family arrived at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa. The family followed directions given by the ENT specialist and found themselves in the cancer wing. No one had said the word “cancer” yet, but the writing was on the wall. That very day the McCulloughs were told that Samantha had leukemia, and further tests revealed that Samantha had acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a sub-type that typically demands more strenuous treatment and can often require a bone marrow transplant.

Samantha began chemotherapy treatments almost immediately. She had three one-week rounds of chemotherapy over the course of three months. Samantha responded well to the treatments. During her three months at St. Joe’s she was never to be found in her hospital room. She was out and about, visiting nurses and fellow patients and playing with the hospital’s toys. She was also never without family by her side. “Through it all she remained the happy-go-lucky two-year-old she’d always been,” reports her father, Steve McCullough.

At the end of the three months of treatment, the McCulloughs were presented with options for continuing treatment. They could continue on the seemingly successful path of more chemotherapy, or they could consider a riskier but likely more effective bone marrow transplant. The McCulloughs, including 1 year-old Molly, were all tested to see if they were a bone marrow match. The odds that a sibling will be a bone marrow match are about one in four. Despite the odds, Molly was a perfect match for her sister and the team developed plans for a bone marrow transplant.

Samantha McCulloughThe family received more good news when MV told the oncologist that she had stored cord blood from both children. “It was a true life insurance policy,” says MV. Banking cord blood is somewhat unusual, but MV’s good friend in college had had cancer, and when MV became pregnant, she paid special attention to prenatal literature that had anything to do with cancer. The odds that a family will need cord blood are slim, so most doctors do not recommend that families store cord blood because of the expense. Against the odds, MV had read materials that detailed the usefulness of cord blood in treating cancer and decided to bank the cord blood of both her daughters. Because the McCulloughs had stored the cord blood, they had both Samantha and Molly’s own cells to use. This meant that the team could use Molly’s cord blood as a match for Samantha and Molly did not have to suffer through bone marrow extraction surgery.

That was in 2007. Today, Samantha is a fourth grader, an avid dancer just beginning point class who also makes time for swim team and never misses a chance to surf. Also, you might just see Samantha in a commercial featuring 7,000 people in purple forming the shape of a ribbon, a record crowd for cancer awareness.

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